WASHINGTON — Thelma Billy couldn't stop thinking about two old men she saw scrounging half-eaten chicken bones from a garbage can in a park. When she slept, she dreamed about them. When she ate, she saw their faces.
Billy bought them each a hot dog, and thus began her one-woman crusade to feed the homeless.
For nearly two years, she has bought, cooked and hauled food from her suburban Virginia kitchen to thousands of people in downtown Washington. She spends $150 a week doing it.
"I'm not trying to solve the world's problems, but one or two I can help," Billy says.
It's a few more than that.
Every Wednesday, 300 to 500 people line up to receive her food on a sidewalk outside a large Washington homeless shelter. On Fridays, she feeds another 100 at DuPont Circle and 30 to 40 more at Lafayette Square, a park across from the White House.
Worried about drugs and crime, Billy's husband initially advised her against going to the park. She ignored his warnings and began to smuggle plates of food to a few homeless people, then dozens.
She gathered the courage to tell her husband two months later.
"I told him, 'Before you judge people, come with me. See them,' " Billy recalls telling him.
After he saw homeless people hugging his wife, George Billy, a nuclear engineer, started budgeting $150 a week. His mother kicks in another $20 a week.
Thelma Billy, a 52-year-old mother of two from Fairfax, Va., accepts no other money, only donations of food, because she doesn't want trouble with the IRS.
A Fairfax food bank called Food for Others, the Elks of Arlington, the Knights of Columbus of Fairfax, her Catholic church and a local grocery store all help. But it's mostly Billy and a tiny band of neighbors and friends who have caught her humanitarian spirit.
It's 10:30 a.m. Wednesday and an industrial-sized pot of spaghetti sauce, made with 30 pounds of ground meat and 960 meatballs, simmers on a new stove Billy got for Christmas--two others broke down from overuse. Afraid she won't have enough, Billy slits open packs of hot dogs to boil in a pot of sauerkraut.
"Do you think we should move this off and into the garage?" asks Carolyn LaRosa, a neighbor. She's worried a pan of pasta will burn if left on the stove.
LaRosa swings open a screen door to her crowded garage, staging area for today's meal. A table is crammed with day-old pies from a grocery store and cakes with Oreo cookies stuck in the icing.
Back in the kitchen, neighbor Lily Rubbo finishes buttering 20 loaves of French bread. She and her 71-year-old mother begin wrapping napkins around plastic silverware.
"It's work, but if you're into it--if you're helping someone out--it's fun," says Rubbo, eight months pregnant with her fifth child.
Billy, meanwhile, slices radishes for a salad made from 18 heads of lettuce, 16 cucumbers, bags of carrots and stalks of celery. She lifts the lid on the hot dogs and the smell of sauerkraut blankets the room.
Then, it's off to pack her van.
Plastic cups are stashed in side compartments. Pies are stowed under seats. Pots, stacked behind the back seat, are leveled with cans of soup and scrap lumber. Pans of pasta, salad and bread are stacked on top.
Minutes later, the van is lumbering through highway traffic.
At the shelter, more than 350 people are already in line.
"She's been out here every Wednesday that I've been here--rain or snow," says Cromer Marshall, 57, an unemployed security guard who lives at the shelter. "This is something to look forward to. It's a full-course meal."
Edwin Hunter, 40, says Billy's meals are 10 times better than shelter fare, which he described as "mostly noodles and whatever they can mix with it."
Some shelter residents call her Mama. But the no-nonsense Billy keeps up her guard against those who might try to take advantage of her. She knows some people return for seconds and then sell the food to others.