Alexis D’Avanzo may have lost everything after Hurricane Sandy destroyed her Little Egg Harbor Township home, but she found an angel just in time for Christmas.
That angel is Ashley Burns, 16, a sophomore at Absegami High School, in Galloway Township.
In the days after the storm, about 50 members of Beacon Evangelical Church, in Galloway Township, traveled to Little Egg Harbor to assist homeowners with storm cleanup.
“And one of them was this little girl. I remember her face, and I remember talking to her, but I was so distraught,” D’Avanzo said Monday as she continued cleaning up her home.
The church members, who included many from their youth group, ripped out damaged pieces of the home and took debris to the curb. D’Avanzo said she felt a little better at the time, until things got worse later that night. When darkness fell on Mystic Islands’ storm-ravaged waterfront landscape, someone burglarized D’Avanzo’s home, she said.
“They took all of our tools, the little bit that I had left, and even tools we had borrowed that weren’t ours ... just gone. I was broke. I had no money,” D’Avanzo, 64, said.
A few days after the burglary, D’Avanzo was repairing a hole in the side of the house. She said it may have come from a boat or some other debris, but it had to be fixed so the pipes didn’t freeze in the home.
“I’m out there with a crowbar, and here (comes) this little girl. She gives me a big hug. She said, ‘Here, this is for you,’ and she hands me this envelope. Honestly, I didn’t know what it was all about. She told me it was $500,” she said.
Most of it was money Burns had received in October for her 16th birthday; the rest she raised by asking friends to donate.
“My response was, ‘What? Are you kidding me? I cannot take this.’ She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and her father said she is not going to take it back. Her heart was broken that I was 64 years old and I was out in the freezing cold repairing my house,” D’Avanzo said.
Burns said that when she met D’Avanzo the day of the cleanup, she could see D’Avanzo was upset because of the storm and the theft.
“My heart sank. I thought, ‘How could people be so awful?’” said Burns, of Galloway Township. “It just broke my heart. I raised the money. I told a bunch of my friends’ families what she had been through and how heart-breaking it was, and they all helped.”
It took a month to raise the money. Burns said it was the first time she had ever done anything like that.
“Last weekend, I brought it to her house. It was very touching. We both started crying. To me it was very eye-opening. I was just overwhelmed at the things that I saw after the storm,” she said. “I told her (D’Avanzo) that God’s always on your side, and he’ll help you through everything you’re going through.”
Burns’ father, Bill, said that when his daughter returned home from helping D’Avanzo last month, she wanted to do something more to help.
“She told me about how she had helped Alexis, and she said, ‘Dad, if you could see the devastation up there. ... They got water up to 4 feet in their house,” Bill Burns said.
He said he tries to instill in his daughter the value of giving back to society.
“She said, ‘Dad, what do I do?’ And she said she wanted to donate her Sweet 16 money,” he said.
Bill Burns said he and his family are just trying to pay it forward.
“I’m extremely proud. ... She brought me to tears. Seeing your daughter thinking of other people in this world is so moving. It shows that there is hope in life that we are thinking of other people and they are not alone. Ashley is a very caring person. If you fall down, she’s the first one helping you up,” he said.
D’Avanzo cried softly Monday afternoon as she spoke about Burns. The high school student’s donation will probably always make the mother of seven cry, she said. The first thing she did with the money was to repair the hole in the side of her house on Spar Court, she said. The siding is now going back up.
“Talk about Christmas angels. ... This girl was an angel. There were thousands of us devastated on Mystic Islands, but it was like this star was over my house, and she was my star. I will never forget her for the rest of my life,” D’Avanzo said.
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