Each Sunday morning, Ilene Leventhal loads food and other provisions into a van at her Potomac home and drives to the District. Providing a support system for several dozen homeless men and women, she is completely at ease in designer jeans, aerobic shoes and T-shirt among the makeshift tents and piles of old furniture that mark their living areas.

For the past six months, she has led nearly 50 Potomac-area residents in a group called Hand to Hand. They dispense home-cooked meals, used clothing and heartfelt greetings to the homeless on the one day a week when most church-run soup kitchens are closed.

"Our goal is not only to feed them, but also to show them that there are people out there who care," Leventhal said.

Volunteers, mostly women in their thirties and forties, take turns cooking 20 meals each, packaging them and delivering them from the back of a green and brown Ford van that belongs to group member Jane Isaacson. Each week, the group provides about 120 meals.

"Seeing the smiles and the thank-yous and the graciousness of these people . . . it really warms your heart and it makes you feel good," Issacson said.

"Most of them are trying to get off the street and make something of their lives, and they know that {we} really support them and want them to succeed."

Her group has support from several local companies: Mrs. Field's Cookies in Montgomery Mall donates leftover cookies it saves, and a nearby Giant grocery store provides tinfoil containers for the meals.

Demand for the group's services has grown dramatically since May 1 in the face of decreased city food distribution, Leventhal said, although members have nearly doubled their weekly dinners from 60 to about 120 meals.

They regularly run short at their final stop, Lafayette Square, where dozens of men and women start gathering hours before the van's 1 p.m. arrival to secure their places in line.

A former teacher with no formal training in social work, Leventhal said she has learned through trial and error how best to approach homeless men and women.

She formed the group after first venturing downtown with a pot of stew and brown rice in December. She had been spurred by a television

documentary about life in the streets of Washington that she and her son Shawn, 12, watched together.

Now she serves as both coach and cheerleader for her group, encouraging volunteers to get out and talk to those they are feeding but also cautioning them not to get too close too quickly.

"What I learned from the beginning is that you need to respect these people, and if they say no, stay away, because they know what they want," she explained, as she circled the Federal Reserve Board building on a recent Sunday with a foil-wrapped package in each hand.

"If you think about it, this is their home, it's where they're living. So we try not to get too close until they acknowledge us."

Leventhal typically calls out to individuals as she aproaches and asks if they would like a hot meal. If she receives a positive reply, she also offers clothing and other necessities from the back of the van, often held in shopping bags from Garfinckel's, Lord & Taylor, Britches and other upscale department stores.

Leventhal talks a blue streak to men and women who remember her from previous weeks and dispenses hugs and encouragement along with the packages of meatloaf, maccaroni casseroles and stuffed shells.

"She's just amazing, she's wonderful with them," Hand to Hand volunteer Judy Christensen said. "They love her, they bond with her."

Leventhal said she considers the weekly project a family affair. Shawn helps her cook and accompanies the group in the van nearly every week, and Lisa Leventhal, 21, pitches in when she is home from college.

Shawn was the first one in the group to get through to Anthony, a ravaged-looking man who lives alone on the corner of 20th and C streets, and to succeed in offering him a meal early this spring. Anthony, who does not give out his last name, now smiles in recognition when the van pulls up by his pile of belongings each week.

He recently accepted a new baseball cap from Shawn in addition to a carefully wrapped casserole.

Leventhal said she would like to turn the Lafayette Square stop over to a larger organization and focus her attention on the smaller, more manageable sites earlier on the route.

"I've been told that we shouldn't be {here}, that we are putting ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation," she said, gesturing toward the crowd of men and women pushing toward the van and demanding food. "But I just can't pull away until I know someone else is there to provide."