On Saturday afternoon, Springfield Mall was clogged with shoppers. Three weeks before Christmas, that was only to be expected. What was unexpected, what was downright unnatural, was that a family drove all the way over from the Manassas area, fought their way through the traffic surrounding the mall, found a parking space, and came inside -- for the sole purpose of donating clothing to needy children.

It happened this way: Off toward the end of one of the mall's ground-floor wings (they all look alike, but this is near Penney's, in front of the Holiday Spa) there's a dinky, artificial tree, a table with two volunteers, a Salvation Army pot and a bell-ringer. All together, it's not too noticeable, and most shoppers ignore it.

Paper angels hang from the tree's branches. On the bottom of each angel is written the first name of a child, his or her age, and two articles of clothing. The idea is, you select whichever angel you want, and then go out and buy the items listed. The Salvation Army will distribute the clothes to the proper youngsters on Dec. 21.

Randy and Susan Slager have four children, so they picked four angels that matched their kids' ages. Then they went and bought Jonathan, 7, boots and pants; Brian, 4, shoes and a coat; Randy, 11, pants and a coat; and Charles, 5, boots and a jacket.

At Springfield Mall, the Salvation Army's angel tree personalizes the act of helping children. "Each Saturday, we all do an activity together, and today this was it," said Randy Slager, a computer scientist. "We get tired of the commercialization, and this sets a different tone for the season." He didn't seem to feel it required much explanation. He gave each of his three boys their angel -- his wife and daughter were elsewhere in the mall -- and left.

Rachel Bailey, dressed in her Salvation Army uniform, is the guardian of the tree. She explains the rules to prospective contributors, and meanwhile rings her bell to get money for the pot. She has been ringing for the Salvation Army for 29 years. For the last 21, she was up the road at Landmark Shopping Center, out in the cold.

"I got a little osteoporosis -- you know, rheumatism of the hips? -- and so they brought me over here, where I'd be inside," Bailey says. She is here six days a week, from 9:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. "It's hard labor. That's why my tootoos" -- she means her feet -- "are a little sore." As she says this, she smiles.

Jeanne Krajewski works at Dulles. She heard about the tree on the radio -- probably on WCXR, which is cosponsoring it. For her child, she decided on 3-year-old Millicent, who was listed as needing a sweater and a pair of pants. "I chose her because she was young. If she had been a 12-year-old, I would have had no idea about the sizes."

Krajewski has never been underprivileged, but says she could imagine what it must be like. "Doing this is much more personal than dropping in a handful of change. It makes you feel real good." And her angel? "I'll put it on my tree."

To reach its goal of providing 1,500 children with two articles of clothing, the Salvation Army is looking for people who can spend a few hours helping Rachel Bailey. And if you can't do that, the metro region's volunteer bureaus are eager to match you up with hundreds of other organizations. Tell them your abilities, interests and time available, and they'll find you a useful activity.

The Volunteer Clearinghouse of the District of Columbia placed 2,200 volunteers in 600 agencies last year. Executive Director James Lindsay mentions one area they could still use help with: "The Sasha Bruce House on Maryland Avenue, like other group homes in the city, has both runaways and kids referred through the courts. We're looking for a black male or female who has vocational or professional skills ranging from plumbing to accounting to acting, and who could serve as a role model. Maybe once a week for six months, he would say what he does and how he does it. It would be especially good to get someone who has had a rough life and then become successful, to show the kids there is a way out."

Lindsay and spokesmen from the other volunteer bureaus say that on every snow emergency there is a pressing need for drivers for such groups as Meals on Wheels and the Visiting Nurses Association. Beyond that, Lindsay points to "a great need for drivers in general. A cancer patient will need to be taken in for treatment, or senior citizens to pick up food. Drivers can come on a lunch break or be on an on-call basis."

In a similar vein, Mary Reese of the Prince George's Voluntary Action Center says they "desperately need people to be van escorts -- to assist seniors going to day activities in various locations throughout the county. The escorts don't drive, but they assure safety in boarding and debarking, as well as en route."

Reese says her center also has had several requests from group homes and from families with handicapped members looking for buddies. "I know a young man in his mid-twenties in Hyattsville who's legally blind and mentally retarded. He's looking for someone to be a companion -- a weekly visitor who can help him get out to community activities or sporting events. And there's a lady in her early fifties in Clinton who would appreciate a weekly visitor to discuss mutual interests."

During the next three weeks, all the county centers will be looking for volunteers to help with holiday parties at hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions. The Alexandria Volunteer Bureau and the Voluntary Action Center of Fairfax County have groups that need assistance delivering holiday baskets to homebound people both next week and the week after.

"The holidays are a wonderful time for families to do projects together -- a family of three or four could come to a thrift store and help separate clothing," says Angie Carrera, director of the Fairfax agency. "Last year I worked with a mother and her 7-year-old child, putting peanut butter sandwiches together on the day after Christmas for people along the 14th Street corridor in D.C. It was one of the most fun experiences I ever had."

Sarah Silbert, like Carrera, knows a bit about volunteering. When the D.C. Clearinghouse wants to call the troops out -- as they did on Community Service Day two months ago -- they call Silbert, the student council president at Maret High School in Cleveland Park. And every Wednesday, three or four Maret students help out at the Martha's Table soup kitchen on 14th Street. Tomorrow, Silbert will be one of them.

"Instead of taking some obscure basket-weaving lesson, you can go out and volunteer," she says. "It teaches you a lot more. When you say 'community service,' people think of skinny little martyrs wasting their life away. It's not like that at all. It can be fun -- a way to both break out and round out."

To learn more about the Angel Tree, call Captain Smith at the Salvation Army in Alexandria (703) 836-2427.

Alexandria Volunteer Bureau, (703) 836-2176.

Voluntary Action Center of Fairfax County, (703) 246-3460.

Arlington County Volunteer Office, (703) 558-2654.

Voluntary Action Center of the Prince William Area, (703) 369-5292.

Montgomery County Volunteer Bureau, (301) 279-1666.

Prince George's Voluntary Action Center, (301) 779-9444.

Loudoun Volunteer Center, (703) 777-4914.

Volunteer Clearinghouse of the District of Columbia, (202) 638-2664.