As 18-month-old Robert Smallwood squirmed in his mother's arms, his large eyes roamed over three tables stacked with Christmas presents in a stuffy church building on Rhode Island Avenue NE.

His small hands reached out eagerly for his gifts -- a yellow ball and a shiny blue-and-gold helicopter.

The gifts, his mother Dorothy Smallwood said, will make the holidays a bit brighter and help make up for the absence of Robert's father, who is serving a sentence on drug-related charges at Lorton Reformatory, the District's prison in Fairfax County.

"He's going to have a nice Christmas," she said as she left, carrying the gifts in a plastic bag.

Yesterday's pre-Christmas party, which drew more than a dozen children and parents, was one of several gatherings held at local churches over the weekend for families of Lorton inmates as part of Project Angel Tree, a national program.

Last year, officials said, more than 50,000 children nationwide received gifts through the program, sponsored by the Prison Fellowship Ministries, an organization founded by former presidential aide and convicted Watergate conspirator Charles W. Colson. This year, 1,097 Washington area children are expected to receive gifts through the program, said Al Lawrence, director of the group's Washington chapter.

Yesterday's party was held at the Evangel Temple at 610 Rhode Island Ave. NE. The gifts were donated by parishioners of National Presbyterian Church on Nebraska Avenue NW, which has taken part in the program for four years.

Each child selected to receive a gift was identified on a red paper angel hung on a Christmas tree at National Presbysterian Church, said coordinator Betty Golding. Also listed on the angels were three Christmas wishes for each child. The children were selected by their fathers at Lorton, and their names were relayed to church officials by Lorton chaplains.

Veronica Rogers, whose husband is serving a sentence for an assault with a deadly weapon, picked up three large gifts yesterday for her 5-year-old son Anthony. She had left him at home because she did not realize that she could bring him.

Nevertheless, she said, the presents will make the family's Christmas a bit merrier. "He's going to enjoy this," said Rogers, a security guard at a Peoples Drug Store in Forestville.

Although few families showed up at yesterday's party, organizers said they will deliver presents to the homes of many other children before Christmas. "I'll be playing Santa Claus Wednesday and Thursday," said Isaac Webb, distribution services supervisor for the local Prison Fellowship chapter.