Flashing a big smile to show off her missing teeth, 7-year-old Gretchie Coates reached up to give "Miss B" a hug in front of the breakfast counter.
The smell of frying bacon and freshly baked biscuits filled the air as the first sleepy-eyed children wandered through the door. Some stopped briefly to shed their winter coats and book bags. But most rushed right up to the counter for a plate full of scrambled eggs and a cup of hot chocolate.
"I come every morning," Gretchie said, smacking her lips as she eyed the tray of hot buttered biscuits. "I like it. You get to stay here when it's cold and raining, and they (are) nice."
Welcome to A Loving Spoonful, a breakfast club at O'Bery Court in Annapolis where a group of mothers and grandmothers dish up home-cooked food with a dollop of love.
Every school morning, they cook eggs and cereal, pancakes and muffins for between 30 and 60 young children. They give the hungry ones an extra helping and make sure the youngsters drink their orange juice. They smooth lotion on chapped faces. And they give every child a hug.
"We just fellowship and love the kids," said Jean Tyler, president of the O'Bery Court and College Creek Terrace Planning Action Committee, a founding partner in the program.
The 54-year-old community leader joined with a group of women to brainstorm last September after learning that the school breakfast program for the poor was in jeopardy. The eight mothers and grandmothers agreed they would rather raid their own cupboards than let the children go hungry.
"We said we will feed our own kids," Tyler recalled early one morning last week.
With that feisty declaration, A Loving Spoonfulwas born. The breakfast club moved into the O'Bery Court recreation center and began whipping up meals every school morning. Soon children from all across the neighborhood were coming at 7:30 a.m. to line up at the yellow counter.
After several weeks of brown-bagging their own food, the club hooked up with Another Helping, a non-profit network that collects surplus food and distributes it to charities. Every morning, volunteers pick up surplus food from Annapolis-area groceries and bring it to A Loving Spoonful.
"They take what they get and work around it," said Susan Hickes, director of Another Helping. "All the ladies here will take food from their own cupboard if there's not enough."
Long before the sun rises, Tyler and the other volunteers get out of bed, shower and head to the community center on Clay Street. By 6:30 a.m., the crew is hard at work.
Lois Randall, a retired school teacher who lives off Spa Road, comes by to "lend a hand" and cook the eggs. Kathleen Rossback, who lives down Clay Street, brews coffee for the grown-ups. Alderman Dean Johnson, whose Ward 2 includes the Clay Street corridor, mixes up his super-duper hot chocolate and washes dishes.
The breakfast club's matriarch, 71-year-old Beatrice Smith, makes sure that every child gets "a little loving." Fondly known as "Miss B," she walks from table to table, stopping to give a boy a hug or listen to a girl's problem. She checks to make sure the children finish their breakfasts and are ready for school -- with their homework done.
"I enjoy coming over because I love children," said the great-grandmother, who rushes over with curlers still in her hair.
Even though the school system's reduced-price breakfast program was never ended, many children switched their alliance to the breakfast club. The community center, painted in warm colors and filled with toys and books, is closer to home and more comfortable than the school cafeteria.
"With the school program, the kids were being rushed to eat," said Wendy Beavers, who brings her 12-year-old daughter, Jente Green, to volunteer. "Plus, you know with that breakfast program, you get more of a stigma of being poor. Here, we teach them love and respect, and they'll get a hug before they leave."
In the last five minutes, the Rev. Floyd Snowden, an associate minister at Asbury United Methodist Church, gives the children a quick talk on self-esteem and spirituality. Several boys stay clustered around the blackboard, listening to Snowden as they pull on their coats.
Then, in one mad dash, the children rush to the buses, waving goodbye until the next morning.
"These people are wonderful," Hickes said, watching the women hug the last children out the door. "They're unitingtogether to do something for their children. The kids come here, andthey feel warm and received and wanted, no matter where they come from."