It started with a rare tweet by a woman who had - "maybe" - 28 followers on Twitter.
Elizabeth Andrews, a D.C. attorney and mother of a high schooler, was moved by the poise and eloquence of students from Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the deadly Feb. 14 shooting. So four days after the shooting, she tweeted an offer to host young protesters coming to Washington for the newly announced March For Our Lives rally in support of stronger gun control measures.
Within hours, her tweet had taken on a life of its own, with thousands of likes and retweets. Now Andrews, who said she's never been an activist, finds herself running an ad-hoc volunteer network that includes more than 1,500 families willing to host demonstrators and provide logistical support for Saturday's rally. It's all part of the intense preparation and speculation ahead of the most anticipated Washington protest since last year's massive women's march.
"It's been crazy, but crazy in a good way," she said. "People want to find some way to actively participate. Everyone wants to help."
Besides the offers to host young demonstrators, Andrews received proposals to help her organize a grassroots movement that she never intended to launch. A group called DC Local Ambassadors, formed after the women's march to provide support for liberal protests, offered to help create a website to field both host families and demonstrators in need of lodging. Marjory Stoneman Douglas' alumni association, organized as a support network the day after the Feb. 14 shootings, has been sending hundreds of prospective demonstrators her way.
The website went live on Feb. 28 and "48 hours later, we had 300 host families signed up,'' Andrews said. That number is now around 1,620, exceeding the number of demonstrators who have requested lodging.
Anne Tumlinson said volunteering her D.C. home was "a no-brainer'' as soon as she heard about the initiative. A Florida native who grew up in Gainesville, Tumlinson was matched up with a group of 18-year-olds from Jacksonville. The vetting process consisted of chatting briefly with the parents of one of the teens.
"It already feels like it's just a bunch of friends or family members coming to town, like of course I would want them to stay with me,'' she said.
Andrews has been so busy with her network, she's not hosting anyone herself. She said she's now in the "unintended second phase of our work'' - channeling the energy of those volunteers into other avenues.
Aspiring host families without guests are being asked to prepare brownbag lunches or pick up demonstrators from the airport. Others have offered to buy Metro subway cards for the protesters. The MSD Alumni Association came up with a wish list of protester needs - things like rain ponchos, safety vests and energy bars. Every item had been purchased by Wednesday.
Up to 1,000 young protesters have been matched with host families, although it's unclear how many will come since many of them were still frantically fundraising for the trip. At least 1,000 people - students, parents and faculty -are expected to come up from MSD High School, but most will be flying straight back to Florida and not staying overnight.
Exactly how many protesters will actually gather Saturday has become a local guessing game. Organizers predicted up to 500,000 demonstrators in their National Park Service permit - which would approximately match the women's march and place it among the largest protests in Washington since the Vietnam era.
"A lot of parents are looking at what these kids are doing and thinking that they might actually be able to make a difference at this moment in history," Andrews said. "Maybe they can succeed in actually changing the country's gun laws in a way that their parents and previous generations failed."