- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2000

In the basement of a Southeast church yesterday, about 80 children wolfed down turkey so they could get to the more serious business of the day: opening presents.

"That's what I like about Christmas," said Tyreek Humbrick, 7. "That and spending time with my family."

"Still, I wish I could open it now," he added, shaking his gift. "I hope it's a toy. But I don't really care as long as I get something."

At St. Theresa of Avila Church, a small army of volunteers organized the fifth annual Christmas Eve dinner so that the children of this community could have a warm meal and presents.

"It's a godsend," said Olivia Taylor, a 53-year-old grandmother who supports the nine grandchildren of her four murdered children, killed between 1988 and 1996. "It's already tough feeding and clothing all these children. Money gets tight sometimes. Then on top of that, buying all the presents. These programs help me so I don't have to worry as much."

One grandson, Michael Griffin, 10, was eating his first Christmas dinner at the church.

"I like that they invited us," he said. "I like Christmas, and I like the food and the gifts. But I am thankful for what I have."

For the volunteers, the dinner is its own gift.

"It a real honor to do this," said Diane Lipton Dennis, a co-founder of Project Shelter, which sponsors the dinner. "These children are remarkable incredibly well-behaved, respectful kids and with such big hearts. They have such hard lives, but they are so sweet."

The guests of honor, about 80 children, came mostly from low-income, single-family homes, foster care, homeless families or families struggling with drug addiction, violence or illness.

Many of the children's parents are in jail or in treatment programs. Some are in the care of relatives. Others are in families that make up the working poor.

"Sometimes we get children such as one 8-year-old I know who comes in and asks for food he can take home to his brothers," Mrs. Dennis said. "These kids

live through so much and remain so goodhearted."

Hannah Hawkins, whose husband was murdered 25 years ago, founded Children of Mine in 1975 and feeds, clothes and tutors these same children.

Project Shelter, founded by Mrs. Dennis in 1992, helps her once a month and prepares Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the homeless.

What do these two want for Christmas?

Money, says Mrs. Dennis. "We are always begging for it, and it's hard to do," she said. "But we want to do more, not less."

Parental involvement, says Mrs. Hawkins. "It's a real tug of war," she said. "We don't get cooperation from the parents, they don't give back. I want to see them here helping. But it is the same story at the schools. It's not fair to the children."

Yesterday, the children enjoyed feast and festivity.

After the children were seated in the well-lit basement of the church, they sang lively renditions of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bells." Grace was said, and a meal of turkey, gravy, green beans, stuffing and apple sauce was served.

Jeffery Boyd, 6, nodded approvingly at the Christmas feast between mouthfuls and whispered that he had asked Santa for a racing car.

"I hope I get a lot of presents," he said wistfully.

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