Back in July 1971, when the So Others Might Eat soup kitchen first began offering hot meals to the homeless and the poor, its volunteer staffers had to scrounge leftover fried chicken from fast food restaurants and blemished vegetables from dumpsters at supermarkets.

But in 15 years, as the chow line grew from 25 people a day to 800, so did the budget -- up to $1 million a year, most of it from private contributions.

Yesterday, as the city's oldest soup kitchen welcomed 300 guests to its birthday luncheon, coordinator Geoff Barnes said the facility has served 2 1/2 million meals since its modest beginning, and "we never turn anyone down."

SOME, as the nonprofit, ecumenical organization is called, was founded by a Jesuit priest, a Georgetown psychologist, an advocate for ex-convicts, two parish priests and a representative of the Archdiocese of Washington, and is supported by volunteers from 74 local churches and organizations. It originally operated out of the kitchen at St. Aloysius Church on North Capitol Street before moving to the two-story brick building at 71 O St. NW.

Yesterday's blessing was given by the Rev. John Adams, SOME's director, and several of the kitchen's founders returned to serve the birthday meal, complete with layer cake and to join the singing of "happy birthday."

There were also SOME alumni among the crowd. Nathaniel Evans said he first came to SOME in 1978 when he was hungry and in need of treatment for alcohol and drug problems.

"I would not be alive" without SOME's counseling service, Evans said. During lunch Evans, who now works as a document technician at a Washington hospital, encouraged the other guests to seek help from the organization. "It is possible if you want to change your lives," he said.

Barnes said the persons SOME serves are mostly homeless, and the "poorest of the poor." SOME also offers medical and dental care, and drug and alcohol counseling.

"There are definitely people who don't want any help because your trust level gets to zero when you are on the street for so long," Barnes said. "It is a challenge to be with people who are poor for a long period. The limits of our imagination and creativity to face the problem is a major difficulty. We need creative brain power."

"Our mission is to reach people with dignity and in a very human way," Father Adams added.

But the kitchen also serves some of the "newer" poor. "I like the food here and the place is very clean. More important is that they feed everybody and they don't harass you," said Charles Richardson, who started coming to SOME two months ago after he lost his job as a carpenter's helper.

Volunteer supervisor Sister Mary Griffin said SOME's major project now is to develop "single-room occupancy" buildings for 150 people. "These people are homeless and they need their own place where they can keep their own things," she said