Barry Farmer and several of his classmates hopped off the school bus and headed for the homeless men at 21st Street and Virginia Avenue NW.
Barry, 13, handed the tallest man a bagged lunch, a carton of juice and one of the cards the children had made in school. The surprised man said, "Wait," reached out to swipe playfully at Barry and read aloud the card, which said, "I just want to say that you are still a child of God. Happy Thanksgiving."
"This is real nice," said the man, smiling broadly at the group of children who stood before him. "Real nice."
The sight of the eighth-graders from the District's Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, in their navy pants and blue plaid skirts, put smiles on the faces of homeless people in several parks across the city yesterday. This is the third year that teachers have taken students on a pre-Thanksgiving excursion to meet homeless people.
Eighth-grade teacher Bernard Toomer was one of the originators of the project. "I want them, when they sit down for Thanksgiving, to think about the less fortunate," he said.
The night before, Toomer, his wife, Annette, and his brother-in-law stayed up until 1 a.m. preparing 68 lunches of freshly baked, sliced turkey sandwiches, homemade yellow cake with chocolate icing and fruit. At each stop, the 44 students scattered into smaller groups to find homeless people to offer food.
At Lafayette Square, Jennie Nelson gave a lunch to a homeless man she spotted sitting alone.
"Thank you and God bless you," he said.
"Happy Thanksgiving and God bless you too," said Jennie, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Later, she explained, "I just cried because he was so happy when I gave him the bag. It touched him so much, and that touched me. Most of them really appreciate stuff like this because no one really cares about them."
But not everyone accepted the lunches from the children. Rhonda Washington walked up to a man on a bench on the Mall near 15th Street. The man, with plastic bags full of personal belongings at his feet, waved her away and said, "I'm all right."
"We want them to see what it feels like to give and to have the experience of rejection," said Sister Elizabeth Semmelmayer. "Both experiences are important. One will teach them the gladness that comes with giving, the other will teach them solidarity with the people they seek to serve."
Some students said they had seen homeless people on the street, but others, residents of the suburbs, said they had seen homeless people only on television.
When another man asked for a lunch and the students discovered they didn't have any more with them, classmate James Chism, 13, gave the man his own lunch, "a peanut butter and jelly sandwich my mom made," James said.
At 15th and E streets NW, the children were mesmerized by a man who identified himself as "George Roger Kanig Canepa Kager Siegel, a lawyer."
"A lawyer?" a boy asked in disbelief.
"A lawyer," Siegel, 44, repeated.
Later, the children passed a neatly dressed man sitting on a bench nearby.
"Can I get one of those?" he asked.
The children said they didn't think he was homeless.
"A lot of homeless people don't look crazy or dress funny," the man said. "I go into restrooms to wash up. I'm looking for a job."
They handed him a lunch. "Have a happy Thanksgiving," the man said.
Before boarding the bus to return to school, the students compared lessons they had learned.
"I've learned to appreciate my mother buying me stuff because there are some people who don't have anything," Tamika Walton said. "On Thanksgiving I used to not think about the homeless. I will this time."