ON SUNDAY afternoons, strangers could find a hot meal, smiling faces and good conversation inside the Stafford home on Willow Street in Mount Holly, N.J.

No one called it charity, and those strangers often left as friends, said Earl W. Stafford, one of 12 children raised in the home.

"We didn't have much, but every Sunday they were there," Stafford, 60, said the other day from his office in Fairfax County, Va. "I can do a little bit to help my neighbors, too."

Stafford, an Air Force retiree, will host a large dinner for strangers next month in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Through his nonprofit foundation, the Stafford Foundation, Stafford dropped $1 million to purchase the JW Marriott "build-your-own ball" hotel package, an event that comes with 300 rooms, $200,000 worth of food and drink and a stellar view of Pennsylvania Avenue from the hotel's 12th-floor terrace.

It's the kind of lavish event a rich business leader would host to impress other rich business leaders and the upper class of the social food chain.

Stafford, chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Systems and Technology, is certainly rich. But as the son of a Baptist minister, he measures his wealth in other ways.

"What we're doing was first inspired by the Lord," he said.

That's why at least one-third of the guests at his "People's Inauguration" will be poor and disadvantaged, along with wounded soldiers, the terminally ill and volunteers who have helped facilitate change and foster hope in communities across the country, he said.

The People's Inaugural Project also will include a prayer breakfast and luncheon featuring Martin Luther King III, and Stafford is raising more money to host two major inaugural balls, one for adults and one for children.

Stafford likens the event to an "investment in people."

"We're going to bring together 1,000 people of different stations in life," Stafford said. "It's going to be a meshing of the people, regardless of what you are and who you are. I'm just happy for those trying to serve."

Stafford is asking the National Urban League and other nonprofit organizations to pick the attendees, and he has been asking businesses in the Washington area to donate tuxedos, dresses, makeup and other services.

"If they're coming to a ball, I want them to feel like they're at a ball," Stafford said.

Stafford's donation comes at a time when others in and around Washington are cashing in on the historic inauguration by jacking up hotel-room rates or even vacating homes for the weekend to rake in five-figure rentals.

Deep roots in Mount Holly

Stafford's relatives, many of whom still live in South Jersey, are hoping they can score a ticket or two themselves.

"Yes, we're going to be there," Earl's brother Gene insisted with a big laugh.

During a recent evening in Gene Stafford's cozy living room in Mount Holly, just a block from where the family grew up, it was clear that the Stafford family's generosity is part of their DNA.

"It came from our parents," said Jean Stafford-Norman, Earl's sister. "They were always caring people, giving people. They would both be so proud of Earl right now, 'cause he's doing the right things."

Their parents were the Rev. Robert Stafford, longtime minister at the Second Baptist Church in Mount Holly - a congregation the family helped start in 1904 - and his wife, Mabel.

The Staffords were a family stitched by faith, not money, and they remain close-knit.

"We didn't have much, but we're all just so close," Earl said. "My father never allowed us to be poor, because he said poor deals with the attitude and broke deals with the wallet."

And while Earl Stafford is neither poor of spirit nor broke in the wallet, Gene says every penny his brother has earned has come with humility and belief that a higher power made it all possible.

"I'll tell you a story about Earl that he would never tell you," said Gene, a former Mount Holly police chief.

As Gene told it, one day a drunk came to a Virginia church where Earl is a deacon. Embarrassed by his condition, the man turned around abruptly and left, but Earl tracked him down, welcomed him into the church and tried to get him help.

Earl invited that man to a church banquet, but he didn't show up.

"My brother got up and left and said: 'I have to find him,' " Gene said.

A short time later, Earl returned with the man, who now wore a new suit and shoes.

"That man is still in the church today," Gene said. "My brother is the CEO of a major organization and he's humble enough to go out and find this man. With Earl, it's from the heart."

To nominate someone for the inauguration project, call 703-476-1000, or e-mail inauguration@thestaffordfoundation.org. For more information about the Stafford Foundation, visit www.thestaffordfoundation.org