When the Thanksgiving Day grocery basket arrived at the Smith family apartment in Southeast Washington Tuesday night, members of the household could barely see it because the electricity had been turned off two weeks ago.
But under the illumination of a television set being surreptitiously powered from a hallway light socket, the Smiths soon realized that they could scrap today's plans for chicken wings and string beans. Bulging out of the basket was a 12-pound Butterball turkey and underneath were all sorts of canned goods, bags and boxes of food.
"This is going to make a big difference in our menu -- if we can figure out a way to cook it," said Elaine Smith, 33, her eyes beaming as two of her four children raided the basket.
"Pork and beans!" screamed her 6-year-old son, Curtiss, his head buried inside the groceries. His brother, Donell, 5, reached in next and retrieved a box of Stove Top stuffing. "For the turkey," he explained.
The oldest boy, Nathaniel, 13, began to store the food, brushing away insects as he made room on the bare kitchen shelves. Opening the refrigerator, which was empty except for frost, he caressed the frozen holiday bird.
After weeks of soups, cereal and Army surplus hash, the Smith children scurried around the the family's cramped two-bedroom basement apartment on Eighth Street SE, tumbling on the floor and hugging the family dog. Suddenly, the fact that they were flat broke and living in darkness didn't make that much difference -- for now.
The basket had come from members of the Church of the Living God, in Northwest, one of many groups that have delivered thousands of grocery baskets to poor families this week and plan to serve thousands of meals in local shelters and church basements today.
As volunteers spread through the city, they offered a window on the world of poor families, many of whom reacted as though they had been visited by Santa Claus.
"This is what I was hoping for all along -- something good to eat," said Beverly Robinson, Elaine Smith's 9-year-old daughter.
The Rev. Charles E. Hood, pastor of the Church of the Living God, said church members came up with the idea for a food giveaway after he noticed more and more desperate families while making rounds for a pest control company that he owns.
His impressions of an increase in the city's poor have been supported by local and federal census statistics that show about 21,000 poor families in Washington, about 15 percent of all families. The poverty rate for children in the nation's capital is 26 percent, higher than in any state except Mississippi, according to census figures.
At a field hearing conducted in Southeast Washington last month, the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families listened to several speakers explain how they are coping with financially troubled times.
The committee found, as the Children's Defense Fund and the Black Child Development Center recently reported, that many are not coping: that many children, especially poor blacks, are likely to die in their first year of life or end up pregnant or in prison.
In reporting the findings of the hearings to Congress earlier this month, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), said, "It is a rather tragic commentary on the United States of America that here within the shadow of the dome of the Capitol, just a few short blocks away, we had to listen to the tragic stories of these individuals, individuals who, in some instances, through no fault of their own, find that they were poor and find that they are the left-out in American society."
The official federal poverty "threshold" is $8,414 for a family of four. The Smith household of six, which includes Joseph Wilson, 49, a part-time construction worker, brings in about $7,000 -- including compensation from federal assistance programs.
"How do we make it? That's a good question," Smith said. "I shift money around, pay this bill instead of that one, buy this one boots instead of that one. And what do I have at the end of the month? No electricity."
For those who have taken the time and money to make donations and deliver the food baskets, the reasons for giving are simpler to explain.
"Personally, I feel blessed just to be able to help somebody," said Dorothy Stanton, one of the church members who visited the Smith family. "I am reminded that it was only a few years ago when my name was on a donation list. I had seven children, all very young. So I know what these people are going through."
Besides, she adds, "Among the so-called poor I have found people of monumental patience who somehow find a way to be happy and hope for a better day."
For the Smiths, a Thanksgiving basket was enough to change at least one evening into a few hours of happiness, and no one was more pleased than Beverly, who has been taking cooking classes at the Draper Elementary School.
A high achiever in school, a member of the school glee club, her church choir and the Brownie Scouts, Beverly had actually started cooking for her young brothers at age 7, caring for them almost alone as her mother waged an ongoing battle against alcoholism.
"I think it's in her raising, but I know that there is something special about the child -- a naturally dutiful child," Wilson said.
"She doesn't think of herself as being poor," Smith said. "She doesn't ask for much, but she gives a lot. I guess the reason she's like that is because we have our talks. One day I sat down and told her, 'You have to watch out for your brothers.' And she just did it."
Beverly takes control of the kitchen as soon as she arrives from school, then begins ordering the others to start cleaning up the other rooms. After laying out the food for preparation, she starts helping her brothers with their homework and then does her own.
"I want to be a nurse," she says. "So I practice on them."
Despite her good nature, however, Beverly admits that not being able to afford a "Barbie Doll" and a "Princess of Power Castle" sometimes makes her sad.
But as she reads the directions on how to bake a turkey, a bright smile crosses her face. "This makes me very thankful," she said.