Every parade has its stragglers, and our annual march against the "built-in deficit" that plagues Children's Hospital is no exception.

Just so the trusty old shoebox doesn't get totally out of practice, the letters that always come bringing alms in the off-season for the hospital's free-care fund are stored away inside until it's time to get started once again. And the accumulated expressions of concern help get the campaign off to a good start.

This year letters came from 15 individual contributors, and a couple of offices. Although private donors are never mentioned by name (once things get rolling, all I could do would be list names), their reasons for giving are always interesting and personal, and thought-provoking.

A letter bearing a check for $5 said, "just a thank-you to my good neighbor who is always doing nice things for others." A neighbor like that would never dream of taking money for services rendered, but a "thank-you" like this has to be appreciated.

Along a similar vein came a letter with $15 enclosed that conveyed thanks to "the men who helped me when my car broke down . . . and the cab driver who didn't charge me anything." It still happens.

A note from a real shoebox fan brought $50. He concluded his letter, "Hoping to contribute to your 1999 shoebox drive."

Well, there's no question in my mind that Children's Hospital will still be serving youngsters of every race and creed through the end of the century. And, unless the trends of the past 100 years aren't instructive, the hospital will still be at least partially dependent on the generosity of area citizens for the funds that make free care possible. The hospital is required by law to make such free or low-cost treatment available to parents who can't financially handle the expense, but whose children need medical help.

Another true-blue shoebox fan sent in $50 two weeks ago, explaining, "Since I'll be away when your appeal is made for Children's Hospital, I am enclosing my bit for this worthy cause." Merci beaucoups!

Our next letter came from the parents of an 11-year-old girl. It read: "The enclosed check in the amount of $81.20 for Children's Hospital was the result of a bake sale organized and planned by five children in Rockville, Maryland."

The five socially-conscious entrepreneurs sold homemade cakes, cookies, lemonade and punch. They deserve a big hand.

A very important message came in another, very sad, letter.

"Our neighborhood has recently lost one of our children. He died in a stupid accident. I say stupid because it was, and if he were here he would say it, too. He just wasn't thinking when he climbed that telephone pole. The only thing we can figure out is that he didn't know there were other wires up there besides telephone wires. 33,000 volts hit him and he died instantly.

"Our neighbors have decided to contribute to Children's Hospital in his memory.Perhaps you will pass along to other parents and children, even telephone wires carry 115 volts. They are so far up in the air because they are so dangerous."

Eleven bereaved neighbors sent the hospital $152.50 along with their collective warning.

Two organizations also sent off-season gifts. The first arrived from the "employees fund" of Data General. The McLean-based computer services firm sent $192 to help get a headstart for our annual fund-raiser. Many thanks.

The other office contribution came from the Naval Sea Systems Command at the request of a retiring civilian employe.Instead of a traditional good-bye gift, the departing colleague asked that a collection be taken on his behalf and the proceeds be given to the hospital. His appreciative co-workers gathered $200.

So, our 15 separate letters contained $858.70, and the two office groups added $392, bringing our starting total to $1,250.70. Well, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Now it's up to you to start filling the mail pipeline with the funds that will make free care possible at Children's Hospital.

Here's the address. Please send your tax-deductible check, payable to Children's Hospital, to: Scott Chase, c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

I'll be right here waiting, pen in hand. Last year we hit $230,000. Let's shoot for a new record.