It gets better from here.

Friday was the first day of winter, also known as the shortest day of the year - the day with the least daylight in it.

So as of today, we start getting a little more light in our lives - although granted, that positive trend is pretty tough to spot at first. The sunrise actually will keep getting a bit later over the next two weeks or so, and we all know by now the start of winter isn't the hard heart of winter.

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But for all its drawbacks, all its darkness, this time of year still has its attractions, too. Out on my local Boardwalk, in Ventnor, these early-winter days are when the sun sets almost directly in front of you as you head Downbeach, toward where the boards hit a dead end at the Margate City line.

It's beautiful, almost blinding sometimes - and it actually is blinding if you're driving that direction on Atlantic Avenue, just a block away. (Actually, it's the exact same view, but having the sun right in your eyes is just a lot less intimidating when you're walking 4 mph than when you're driving at 35.)

And speaking of bright lights, it's the weekend before Christmas, the height of Christmas-light season - although in a lot of beach-town neighborhoods, there don't seem to be as many lights out this year as we usually see.

That no doubt has a lot to do with the fact this winter, and this Christmas, follow a fall dominated by Hurricane Sandy's October visit to our beaches and boardwalks in New Jersey - and the storm's assault on many of our homes and businesses.

"My lights were under the house," says Christine Sagnis, of Ventnor, a mother of three and the owner of a house whose first floor flooded, and needs to be replaced. "All our reindeer and sleds - they were in the crawl space. They don't work."

But Sagnis isn't coming up short on Christmas spirit at all this year. She's doing her best to spread that spirit of hope - that spirit that things really can and will get better from here - and she's hardly alone.

She talked the other night about the storm, and the recovery, in the Ventnor Community Center. That's just a few steps off the Boardwalk and as she spoke, the room around her was packed with more than 1,500 toys and a bunch of busy volunteers - and more toys were expected by today, as she and other members of the Hooked on Ventnor Volunteer Relief crew hear it.

Mike Advena, the coordinator of the program - and the owner of a Ventnor marina and a home that were both slammed by Sandy - said these volunteers started coming together a few days after the storm to do what they could to help their neighbors.

"We figured it was going to last through the weekend - maybe three days," says Advena, a former member of Ventnor's City Commission. "But it just took off from there."

Almost two months later, they're still at it - six afternoons per week, with Mondays being their only day off. And their biggest single event so far is scheduled for today in the Community Center, behind the local library.

From 2 to 5 p.m., Hooked on Ventnor plans to give away all those toys to kids affected by the storm in the three Downbeach towns - Ventnor, Margate and Longport. The volunteers will be checking for IDs, and the toys are intended for children ages 14 or younger, ones who were affected either directly or indirectly by the storm - including by their parents losing jobs or income.

Sagnis knows for some people who show up, today might be about the only Christmas shopping they can afford to do for their kids in a year disrupted by the worst storm in half a century.

"All these people weren't planning on having to redo their homes," she says, adding being a volunteer can be hard sometimes.

"You pretty much get your heart broken every day," when people start telling their stories, she says - especially when they just can't hold back their tears anymore. "You take these people home with you. ... I lie awake at night, thinking about what we can do to help them."

But being able to help someone who really needs it is the payoff for the pain. Plus, it helps the volunteers to know there's somebody else's generosity on the other end of everything they give away - because it all came here from donations.

Advena points out toys shipped in from Ohio. Sagnis remembers a tractor-trailer delivering a load of food, blankets and cleaning supplies from a church in Nebraska. She shows a box of quilts - all handmade - from Texas.

Yes, this production is much, much more than a giant toy drive. They have big bins loaded with brooms and mops and more cleaning stuff almost spilling out. There's another storage room filled with food - not just soup to nuts, but protein bars and pasta and condiments and more. They have cases of batteries, which are always helpful around Christmas. They have stacks of diapers, which are always helpful for pre-Santa-age kids.

There are boxes of warm vests and hats and gloves inside, and out on the lawn, there are racks and bins of used clothes people are welcome to shop through on their own.

Also outside, there are two pallets of high-grade dog food, delivered the other day by Dan Eliasen, a Glassboro police sergeant and a member of the Gloucester County Police K-9 Association, which got together with a similar group from Salem County to distribute pet food collected by Rescue Bank. That national organization - Rescue Banks' motto is "Helping People Helping Animals" - collects and gives away animal food in areas affected by disasters.

Eliasen says his part of New Jersey did fine in the hurricane - so he and his colleagues there wanted to help in places that didn't. They came to Brigantine first, heard about Ventnor over there and have been bringing their donated dog food around a lot of the state since then.

But the lists of donors and the stories behind them go on and on at this relief site. And obviously, Ventnor isn't the only town around where this kind of thing is happening - and these few volunteer leaders mentioned here definitely aren't the only ones helping in their hometown. Sagnis and Advena both like to say how good a group of teenagers has been for their operation. And there are lots more volunteers of all ages working up and down the local coast, doing what they can for their neighbors in their towns, or for neighbors they never met in other towns.

So if your holiday spirit has suffered - no matter what holidays you celebrate - that's a little thought that might brighten up some of these dark days. Life really will get better from now on for some people who suffered in Sandy, if only because other people are working so hard to make sure it does get better.

Contact Martin DeAngelis:


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