Yogi Berra didn't say it, but he probably should have: You never stand taller than when you help a child.

Today, we kick off an annual effort to stand tall and help the neediest children in our community. Glasses high . . . we hereby launch our 1999-2000 fund-raising campaign on behalf of Children's Hospital.

This is the 51st consecutive year that The Washington Post has pounded the drum for Children's during the winter holidays. It's my 19th consecutive year in the captain's chair. We have raised more than $13 million since Bill Gold began this drive in 1948. We have amassed about $9 million since I took over.

But even though the hand on the helm has changed, the need never does. Yogi Berra probably should have said this, too: Sick kids always need help because they never disappear.

Our drive is aimed at a special slice of that young, sick population. We raise funds to help pay the medical bills of Children's Hospital patients whose families cannot.

We call our till the "free care fund." Every cent you contribute through this column goes to that purpose and no other. It has always worked that way, and as long as my typing fingers function, it always will.

Why Children's, among all the charities out there? Because it has offered excellent care to this community since 1870. It offers that care to every child, regardless of race, creed, color, sex or Zip code. And it offers that care even when families of patients cannot afford it.

The policy of treating every child, including those who can't pay, costs Children's more than $50 million a year. Even if we have the most successful year in our fund-raising history, we will not put much of a dent in that daunting debt.

Yet we will try to grab a piece of the stratosphere just the same. Even if you readers provide for only a handful of needy children, you will have the proverbial nice, warm feeling -- and you will deserve to have it.

Our campaign will run for the next eight weeks, through Jan. 21, 2000. On hand to help are Lynn Ryzewicz, who will be writing about patients and staff at the hospital, and Gerri Marmer, who will help process the scads of dough you send (hint, hint).

Last year, we set an ambitious goal: $700,000. It proved to be out of reach. We finished with $598,212.70 -- the third-best year we have ever turned in, but not what we had hoped.

This time around, we will feather our engines and aim for $650,000. If we reach it, we will have set a Children's fund-raising record.

Instructions for donors appear at the end of today's column. If you'd like your gift acknowledged to someone else or if you'd like to make it in memory or honor of someone else, please supply details and full addresses.

We also accept U.S. coins (they don't have to be counted, sorted or wrapped), foreign coins and foreign bills. Please bring or mail such gifts to 1150 15th St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20071. Please do not contribute U.S. bills, for fear that they will be stolen.

As always, we welcome gifts from individuals and groups. All gifts will be acknowledged by postcard, and all group gifts will be noted in this column. All gifts are deductible on state and federal tax returns as long as you itemize deductions.

If your employer offers a matching gift program, please obtain, fill out and enclose the appropriate forms with your check.

We'll gladly accept gifts of used cars, as in past years. Donated cars do not have to be in working order. All donated cars will be sold at auction. Our campaign gets the bucks, and you get a tax deduction. Call Barbara Weaver at 202-884-4289 to arrange pickup.

We're also happy to be working with Combined Properties, a large local shopping center management company. Combined has designated Wednesday, Dec. 1, as Children's Hospital Day at its 30 centers in the Washington area. All money raised in and near stores will be matched by Combined. Special thanks to Linda Dreyer of Combined for putting her shoulder to this wheel.

Finally, we couldn't jump from 1999 to 2000 without a mega-party on behalf of the hospital with the big heart.

There'll be a doozy on New Year's Eve, at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. It'll be a black-tie affair, featuring dinner, music and celebrities.

Eighteen local charities will share in the proceeds. You can designate Children's as your beneficiary when you make reservations. Further information: 703-556-4245.

And so, Washington, we have liftoff. Can we reach our goal? We can, with your help.

Please be part of a Washington tradition. Many thanks in advance for your generosity.

Our goal by Jan. 21: $650,000.

In hand as of Nov. 22: $44,069.12.

TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:

Make a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 20071.

BY VISA OR MASTERCARD:

Call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in K-I-D-S, or 5437, and follow instructions.