All the babies are beautiful, but it's Jamaal who has stolen Sister Valerie Jarzembowski's heart.
"That's my boy," she says.
Jarzembowski is a child-life specialist at Baltimore's first home for babies who may be infected with HIV, or who have AIDS.
Jamaal (not his real name) is the sickest of six infants and toddlers at the House of Chara -- named after the Greek word for joy -- a northwest Baltimore home for babies who have been abandoned, or have mothers who are too hooked on drugs or too ill with AIDS to care for their children.
Jamaal, 4 months old, is on AZT, the anti-AIDS drug. He may have AIDS, but "he is always happy and alert," said Jarzembowski. "That's why he has stolen my heart."
With bold, black eyes and a dazzling smile, he is one of a select group of infants who are getting tender, loving care.
All the babies who come to the House of Chara are closely monitored by pediatric HIV specialists at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center. Counselors at the home encourage contact with the birth families, and offer counseling to the families.
This has all been possible because a handful of people wanted to do something special for the tiny, innocent victims of AIDS.
The catalysts were three administrators from St. Vincent's Center, a Catholic residential center for abused and neglected children in Timonium, along with Jarzembowski and Sister Mildred Rothwell, two Franciscan nuns who had worked with retarded children in the Baltimore Catholic school system.
Now, after its founders spent three years studying similar ventures in New Jersey and New York, going door-to-door to win neighborhood support and raising $200,000 to purchase and renovate a four-story home, Baltimore's house of joy is a reality.
It is in a quiet residential area on the corner of Belvieu and Eldorado avenues. So far, nine HIV-infected kids have moved in.
"It's been a fantastic experience," said Mary Maffezzoli, the associate director of St. Vincent's who coordinated the project. "It's very exciting now that it has all come together and to see the quality of care that is being provided."
Yesterday, a tour of the home -- which has three bedrooms for the babies in pastels -- revealed that all the babies look healthy, well-fed and seem to like their new home.
Sarah, who was born to a cocaine user and went through withdrawal at the House of Chara, still has trouble breathing. Most of the time she's content to sleep, propped up in an infant carrier. She arrived at the home when she was 4 days old and is now 6 weeks old.
Jimmy is 10 weeks old, and, at 10 pounds, he has doubled his weight since his admission nine weeks ago.
"He was like a little old man with his face sunken in when he first came here," said Rothwell, the house manager. "He wasn't getting nourishment. His mouth was so small he wasn't able to suck on his bottles. We finally got the teeny nipples for him, the kind they use for preemies.
"We had to swaddle him up to soothe him and put cushions around him to make him feel secure. Then, with a lot of T.L.C., he started to thrive."
Theresa (not her real name) has an engaging smile and sleek blond hair. She was with her mother for a while, but was removed from her home by city protective services workers who felt she needed another environment, said Sister Theresa Marth. Marth is a missionary nun of the Sacred Heart, who works at the House of Chara as a child-care counselor.
At 18 months, Theresa is the oldest tot in the program, which takes in newborns and toddlers up to 3 years of age.
"She is very loving and motherly," said Marth. "When the children are in the infant carriers at her level, she will go around and check to see if the bottles have fallen out of their mouths and she will gently put them back in. For an 18-month-old, that's very advanced."
So far, eight black children and one white child have been admitted to the home in a racially mixed neighborhood, said Rothwell. Neighbors have responded warmly to the mission of the house, she added.
The first child, who was 10 days old, arrived July 2. Since then, she has been legally adopted by a family. Another child has gone back to the birth family, and still another has been taken in by relatives.
The home, which has full occupancy with six babies, is anxious to move more of the children into foster homes so it can take in more children, said Bernadette Barmore, program coordinator for the House of Chara.
But, there's a problem: Foster parents, especially those trained to care for babies with HIV and AIDS, are in short supply.
Nevertheless, Barmore is working hard to recruit and train foster parents, who are paid $1,000 a month by the city Social Services Department to handle this special cargo. Her next training session is scheduled in October. Those interested should call Barmore at 367-1191.
Beginning Oct. 2, Barmore also will be training 20 new volunteers -- one-third of them men -- to care for the children. Currently, there are two men among 10 volunteers -- one is a speech pathologist and the other a mechanic.
"They say they like contact with young children and want them to have some roughhousing and be exposed to the male perspective," Barmore said.