Sisters who lost dad to Sandy vow to pay kindness forward

When Hurricane Sandy destroyed their childhood home and claimed the life of their father, three sisters from Staten Island, N.Y., faced the toughest holiday season of their lives.

Angela, Nicole and Ashley Montalto lost their dad in the massive flooding from the storm, and endured a difficult Thanksgiving without him.

“By Thanksgiving, I think we were all still in denial,’’ Angela said in Monday's installment of the “Hope to It” series on TODAY. Without their father on the holiday, she said, “It was a dinner. It wasn’t Thanksgiving.”

When Christmas came around, the grieving Montalto sisters received a surprise from a New Jersey nonprofit they had never heard of, called Heartworks.

“These people don’t even know us, and they reached out to us to try to make our Christmas what it normally was,’’ Ashley said.  

The organization asked the sisters to each make a list of 10 things they wanted, and then provided them with all of those items and more.

“We needed a lot, but the wants were the things that were getting left out,’’ Nicole Montalto said. “So it was really nice that they did that for us so it helped us get through a really hard holiday.”

The sisters were grateful for the support, and now they look to pay that kindness forward to others in need, one year after Hurricane Sandy turned their lives upside down.

“It gave us hope when we really needed it,’’ Nicole told TODAY. “It's definitely something that we would love to do for other people, because it has helped us get through the hardest time in our life."

Heartworks was created by Megan McDowell, who started the group after witnessing the kindness shown to her family by strangers after her brother-in-law, John Farrell, died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Her family received sympathy cards from all over the world, unsolicited meals, and offers to run errands.

The organization has since grown from a handful of women in a living room to gatherings of more than 50 “heart workers” in McDowell's community.

“Every time a heart worker drives someone to the hospital, or walks their dog, or decorates their front stoop for Christmas, we're doing it from a place of knowing our own losses and the power of kindness that comes when someone is dealing with illness or loss,’’ McDowell told TODAY.

The organization has given out almost $600,000 just this year, including more than $16,000 to families like the Montaltos.

“A random act of kindness from someone you don’t know means everything,’’ Angela Montalto said. “Just to think that somebody could go out of their way to help you even a little bit in the smallest way possible, it’s such a big help. It makes you feel a little bit better, like maybe I can get back to some kind of normal.”