In most ways, Theodore Wesby is a pretty average 10-year-old. He likes to "chill out" with friends and read the latest scoop about his favorite rap band. He thinks "Total Recall" was the best movie he's seen in a long time, and he loves to wear his size-9 black K-Swiss sneakers.
But few fifth-graders finish their homework in the back of a Salvation Army truck or spend their evenings bringing clothes and meals to the needy.
"I don't know where he gets it," said his mother, Sharon Gregory, a drug rehabilitation counselor who rides with her son. "Picking up his socks he doesn't do. Wherever he steps out of them, that's where they lay. But the big things like helping somebody else, he's good at."
So most nights, from 6:30 to 8:30, Theo and his mom are at the side of Salvation Army worker Odell Taylor, bumping along from one regular stop to another around Dupont Circle, handing out chow and a bit of hope to folks who often have neither.
But "he can't do anything until he's got his homework finished," said his 25-year-old mother, as she dutifully quizzed him on the difference between imperative and interrogative sentences before the first stop one recent evening. "I don't play. I tell people, 'This is my son. If you see him in trouble, you call me.' "
Then she playfully swipes his notebook and the two, only 15 years apart, play tug-o-war over it as she tries to read aloud his essay, "What I Did On My Summer Vacation." It tells the highlights of visiting his grandmother in Chicago, and flying back by himself on a 757 jet.
Soon they are laughing about the time one of the homeless women tried to kiss Theo, until Taylor, the driver, tells them to keep it down.
A chance meeting with Taylor last March got Theo involved in the food program. Theo was walking to the corner store, came upon Taylor washing the Salvation Army truck and started talking to him. Then Theo saw a yo-yo he wanted inside the truck.
Taylor, a 48-year-old recovered drug addict, told Theo that if he wanted something, he had to work for it. He could earn it by helping him wash the truck, he said. Theo did, and the two have been friends ever since.
"It's educational," said Taylor, when asked about his helper. "He can see the plight of the homeless and the plight of what drugs and alcohol do to people. And he also gets to meet some wonderful people." Gregory agrees. When Theo asked her if he could help Taylor, she went to meet him and decided it would be a good idea -- as long as it didn't interfere with his school work. In fact, it was something they could do together.
She has been separated from her husband since Theo was 4, and the two are very close. "I didn't know anything about raising a baby. I was just a baby myself," she recalled. She also said she knows about hard times. Not long after moving to Washington three years ago, she ended an abusive relationship, staying at My Sister's Place, a shelter for abused women, to get her feet on the ground.
She started a small business selling clothes, which helped a lot, she said, but it also left her with a certain emptiness. "I had this feeling of wanting to help people, wanting to defend them, to speak for people."
Two years ago, she heard about a drug counseling position at a women's shelter in Northeast and has been there ever since. Two months ago, she and her son moved to the Mayfair Mansions apartments off Kennilworth Terrace NE, where Nation of Islam patrols have pushed out the drug dealers.
She is proud and protective of her little boy. At the food truck's first stop, he passes out blankets, while she gives out vegetable beef soup, bread and oatmeal cookies to the lines of hungry people. When the food runs out, the truck has fed about 125 people.
Along the way, Theo fills stacks of plastic foam cups with orange-apple juice. He concentrates hard and works quickly. Then he downs a cup of juice to quench his own building thirst. "As fast as I'm going, I need something to drink," he apologizes. "I couldn't take no more."
Other nights, Theo passes out clothes. "He's got patience," said his mother. "He'll take the time to look through the sizes. I'll say, 'Just hand it to them!' and he'll say, 'But it won't fit!' "
Some of the homeless recognize him now, and look forward to seeing a familiar face in the truck. A man greets him at Connecticut Avenue and 20th Street NW with a big smile and an elaborate handshake.
"I brought you something," said the man, handing Theo a little trinket, a small plastic model of a cat leaning against a milk bottle, which Theo later gives to his mother.
Standing against the counter, in a bike race shirt that reads, "It's good to be young and smart," he tells the other volunteers about a magic trick he saw at school. He has said he wants to be a magician when he grows up. Or a scientist who will learn how to discover things, make potions and do chemistry. Or a policeman. In Chicago, because he said it's safer than the District.
So why spend time now feeding the homeless? He doesn't like to talk much about why, but suddenly an answer comes to him. "The fun, the action, the feeding, the giving and the receiving," he says matter-of-factly. But most importantly, "because I care about people."