September 07, 2005 02:00 PM

You’re never too young to help in the Katrina relief effort. Witness Grace and Abby Stephenson of Alexandria, Va., who are 6 and 7 respectively, and doing their part: sending their Barbie dolls – 10 of their favorites – to evacuated children with no toys.

“You can play with them,” says Grace, pointing to the curvaceous figures spread out over her living room coffee table. “You can act out and dress them up.” Also included in the package: pony tail holders.

The girls’ parents, Charles and Betsy Stephenson, say their daughters’ decision to turn their Barbies into relief angels was all their own.

“They heard us talking about it, and then they were huddled over this table … and when I came home they had them all ready to go,” says Betsy, who is originally from Baton Rouge. (Charles has Louisiana roots, too, having earned his degrees at Tulane and practiced in New Orleans before moving to Northern Virginia.)

“We feel confident these will make it into the hands of people who need them,” adds Betsy – who plans to ship the Barbies to her stepmother, a FEMA volunteer, to give children being watched in a makeshift play area at LSU hospital.

Meanwhile, last week, sisters Jackie, Melissa and Jenna Kantor – ages 14, 11 and 8 – of Bethesda, Md., saw Katrina’s devastation on TV and decided they just had to help.

“Watching,” says Jackie, 14, “made me feel helpless.”

Hearing of the backpacks that had been sent to the Sri Lanka victims of the December tsunami, she wondered: Can we do that here?

By the next day, with the help of their parents – entrepreneur Steve and Aileen, a health-care public-relations expert – the girls launched Project Backpack. The mission: to encourage friends, neighbors and the other kids in their school to donate gently used or new backpacks filled with goods for the kids bunking down in the Houston Astrodome.

The Kantors asked people to fill them with items they had at home, and save their money to donate to groups like the American Red Cross.

Their ultimate goal was to collect at least 1,000 backpacks, but response from the project so far has been overwhelming, with 4,000 packs collected as of 2 p.m. Wednesday. And more are coming in.

Steve Kantor has put up a Web site with info (www.projectbackpack.org), and the final deadline for collection is set for this coming weekend.

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