George Redfern was poorly dressed for cold weather, but he had more immediate concerns as he walked through the doors of Martha's Table yesterday morning.
"You got something I can eat?" he begged.
Then Denise Wheeler, 29, entered the building at 2124 14th St. NW. She, too, was woefully underdressed.
"Can I have a coat?" she pleaded.
Watching people hungry and cold and homeless come into the headquarters of this volunteer organization was more than enough reason for me to launch into a polemic on human degradation in a capitalist society.
But the depression I felt was more than matched by the inspiration of those people who had taken time out of their busy schedules to help. With no expectation of being paid, residents of all ages were delivering clothes, preparing food and offering kind words to those in need.
They didn't even care about publicity.
"I guess I feel it's a good-neighbor policy," said Victor Sartoresi, 42, as he backed away from an interview in a rush to make a pickup for Martha's Table. He said he worked for the Veterans Administration, lives in Washington and sees "a need."
That was the same thing that volunteer Lilian Naegeli, 23, said -- "I see a need" -- as if to say, "Need I say more?"
James Ballosh, 32, helps prepare food. "Because I like it," he said with a shrug of the shoulders.
Betty Stewart, 48, said: "When I came here for help, they helped me. Now I'm trying to give something back."
When Redfern and Wheeler walked into a room where clothes were being sorted, volunteers Valerie Parker, 28, Jane Johnson, 34, and Carol Maxie, 27, stopped their work long enough to show them where to find clothes that might fit.
"Sometimes I have to prove to myself that I don't need to receive money to do something for others," Parker said. "Plus, it puts you in the holiday spirit."
Johnson and Maxie said they divide their volunteer time among a variety of organizations that help the needy, such as the Washington-based Community of Hope.
"It's just a part of me," said Johnson.
Albert Johnson, a retiree, was not available for comment. He was out making another run to area Giant and Safeway stores, picking up uncounted pounds of food to give to the poor.
Juliet Orzal, coordinator of volunteers, notes that about 80 percent of the volunteers are white, which doesn't really matter, I guess. Except that more than 80 percent of the people served are black.
"I think it would help to have more black people get involved," she said.
The 1987 annual report for Martha's Table, which provides food, clothing and services to promote self-help among the needy, revealed impressive accomplishments by volunteers:
McKenna's Wagon, a mobile soup kitchen sponsored by Martha's Table, has so far this year served 172,000 needy people in Washington. That's 22,000 more than last year.
All totaled, 672,000 sandwiches, 240,000 desserts, 25,000 gallons of soup and 40,000 gallons of beverages were served as of Oct. 29.
Forty-two schools in the metropolitan area, 16 churches, four business groups and four senior citizens groups delivered sandwiches on a monthly basis.
One school, Georgetown Day, sends four to eight fourth graders to Martha's Table once a week for an hour to prepare sandwiches.
Wonder Bread donated more than 122,000 loaves of bread and 302,000 desserts. Local restaurants, hotels, caterers and Capitol Hill staff members regularly saved leftover and surplus food for the organization. Canned goods were received from 25 major food drives.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's surplus food program donated thousands of pounds of cheese, pork, beef, rice, peanut butter, potatoes and honey.
The Capital Area Community Food Bank provided about 55,000 pounds of food.
And more than 5,000 individuals and groups donated food.
It was a most uplifting response.
Still, said Olivia Ivy, director of operations for Martha's Table, "Some people who were out on the streets when we started in 1983 are still out there, and the problem is growing."
Clearly, it is not enough just to talk about what has gone wrong. Something must be done, as the volunteers at Martha's Table have demonstrated.