Three-year-old Zion Berryman came crawling up the basement steps in his pajamas on Christmas morning and squealed, bouncing on his toes and beaming a smile toward the visitors who'd just arrived with several bags of food from the nonprofit Moveable Feast.
Soon, he and his three siblings would be whirling around the nearby Christmas tree peeling the wrapping paper from a stack of presents also provided through the support of the organization, located just a few blocks away from the family's Madison-Eastend rowhouse in East Baltimore.
"Oh my God, I love it!" chirped Mya Berryman, 6, of a girly tote bag she'd just unwrapped.
Lakita Branch smiled at the four kids, ages 11, 8, 6 and 3, as they enjoyed their morning — less than a month since their mother, Latoya Berryman, died of blood cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Dec. 7.
Branch, who is Berryman's cousin and the mother of a 17-year-old, 15-year-old and 11-year-old, is now caring for all seven children. Moveable Feast, which gives support to people in the Baltimore region suffering from terminal and chronic illnesses, started providing food for Berryman a couple years ago and has continued helping Branch as she tries to get the family back on its feet.
"It's been a huge help," Branch said amid the Christmas morning excitement. "I've got cabinets full of canned goods. And juices. Turkeys. Someone baked cookies."
Moveable Feast, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, was started amid the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in 1989 by a small group of mostly gay volunteers who began delivering food to Baltimore residents sick with the then-unknown and widely feared disease.
Since then, the organization has rapidly expanded, and now serves some 600 individuals and families across the region and along the Eastern Shore who are battling a variety of terminal illnesses.
On Wednesday morning, as families across Baltimore settled in for a holiday at home, about 250 volunteers — many of them Jewish members of the Beth El Congregation — began arriving at Moveable Feast's headquarters.
Bags and bags of foodstuffs and presents awaited them, in need of delivery across Baltimore and its surrounding counties. Specific routes were assigned to volunteer drivers. Trunks were filled one by one.
Inside and out, the warehouse-like facility buzzed with activity.
"It just seems like an appropriate thing to do on Christmas, to let their regular volunteers have off to celebrate Christmas," said Michael Dopkin, 62, a Beth El congregant who has been volunteering on Christmas for about 15 years.
"This has become something they really want to do on Christmas. It's part of their ritual," said Thom King, cantor at Beth El, of the congregations' members.
"It's a way of honoring the spirit of Christmas, which so many of our friends celebrate. It's a way of celebrating with our Christian friends in a way."
Beyond the food and presents, Moveable Feast's annual Christmas deliveries — which cover families' needs through the first week of the new year — also provide a valuable personal connection for many clients on the holiday, said Thomas Bonderenko, the organization's executive director.
"For many of our clients, we might be the only people they see on Christmas, so part of it is so there is someone knocking on their door, checking in on them, letting them know they're not forgotten," he said.
Stephanie Rich, 53, of West Baltimore, who does information technology work for the city school system, arrived about 9:30 a.m. to pick up deliveries with her granddaughter Symone Williams, 12. Rich said her brother died from AIDS in the early 1990s, and she has made it a point to volunteer with Moveable Feast since.
"I'll always work with them," she said.
After scooping the items destined for families on her designated route, Rich and her granddaughter hit the road. On her second stop of the day, she arrived at Branch's doorstep.
"Moveable Feast. Merry Christmas!" Rich said, as Branch opened the door.
"Would you like to come in?" Branch asked. "Sure," said Rich.
Moments later, little Zion came bouncing up the stairs.