The scene at the house on North Portal Drive just above Rock Creek Park was near chaos yesterday evening: carload after carload of people pulling up to the curb and depositing huge boxes and baskets of food in the driveway.
Some brought their children with them, others brought their mothers and grandmothers. As they exchanged greetings and caught up on what each family had been doing since last Christmas, they compared the contents of their packages.
In the midst of the chatter and commotion stood Deborah Matory, founder and organizer of the annual "Hayride to Christmas" for which all of these folks had gathered.
For nine years, Matory has called on neighbors, colleagues and friends from the civil rights movement and decades of local and national Democratic politics to give food to needy families at Christmas.
"She makes good things happen in a not-so-good neighborhood," said Clemmie H. Strayhorn, principal of Turner Elementary School, Matory's second stop last night. "It's really the true spirit of Christmas, giving and sharing to those who are less fortunate."
By 5:30 last night, Matory and 25 of her cohorts had loaded 85 baskets onto a donated tour bus and then piled on themselves, singing and laughing as they left her house for the cross-city journey to Cleveland Elementary School in Shaw and then to Turner, near St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast.
"Some newcomers will just bring the basics -- turkey, sweet potatoes, greens and rolls," said Matory, who stocks up on canned goods on sale all year to augment the skimpier packages. "But when they come and see what other people put in their baskets, no more will they bring me an empty basket like that."
For many volunteers, preparing and delivering the baskets has become a family event. Barbara Atkinson arrived at Matory's house with her mother, Bessie Hicks, 88; her daughter, Brenda Atkinson Willoughby; and her grandson, Logan Willoughby, 8.
"I try to think through the holidays and realize that these families will have to eat after the Christmas meal," said Atkinson, explaining the presence of grits, oatmeal and sausage alongside the turkey and trimmings in her basket. "And I always put in some candy for the children."
Shelley Carey, of Silver Spring, arrived with her mother, Gwendolyn Johnson, and her daughters, Lauren, 8, and Gillian, 2. "It's important for them to see more than their own Christmas," Carey said. "It's good for them to know that not everybody has something to put on the table for Christmas."
At the first stop, Cleveland Elementary School, 97 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunch programs. At Turner, Strayhorn said, nine out of 10 youngsters live in Stanton Dwellings and Douglass Dwellings, two nearby public housing developments.
Without baskets from Matory's group, most of these families would depend on relatives for Christmas dinner or make do with a less-than-festive meal, said Nancy Griffin, PTA secretary at Cleveland and the recipient of a basket.
"It's good to know other people are trying to help when you aren't doing so well for yourself," Griffin said. "You like to have food in your own house, and not to depend so much on your relatives."
After unloading baskets at each school, the volunteers greeted the waiting families and joined hands with them to sing "Silent Night" and recite the Lord's Prayer.
"It's the fellowship" that counts, Atkinson said. "Letting people know that we care enough not just to write a check but to come and share Christmas with them."