Just call me Robert the Human In-Box.

There I was, minding my own business, on the Red Line subway, reading a book. I sensed someone standing in front of me. I looked up.

A woman of about 50 was holding a $10 bill in her outstretched hand.

"For the kids," she said.

I thanked her and stuffed it into the pocket of my jacket. Later, I tossed it into a drawer, where it joined other cash tendered by other donors. Sometime next week, as we approach the end of our 1999-2000 fund-raising campaign on behalf of Children's Hospital, I'll haul it off to the bank and deposit it.

But not before I say thanks to all who make that deposit possible and necessary.

I'm always carping about those who contribute cash to our annual drive. It could end up lining the pockets of thieves instead of the coffers at Children's, especially if you send cash through the mail.

But most of the cash does reach me, like the ten-spot I was handed on the subway. And a few ten-spots can make the difference between a successful campaign and close-but-no-cigar.

It wasn't just the money that made that ten-on-the-subway transaction memorable. It was what the woman told me after she handed me the bill.

"This makes me feel so good," she said.

Of course, I knew exactly what she meant, and so do regular donors who are reading today's pearls. I give to many charities, and many of you do, too. But when you try to visualize what your gift to the American Pterodactyl Protection League will actually accomplish, you tend to come up blank.

With Children's Hospital, you come up with eyes.

That's what I always see--the eyes of sick kids. Haunting and haunted, worried and wary, importuning and impatient. Kids who want to get better. Kids who know they need help to do it. Kids who wouldn't understand the first thing about fund-raising, but whose health is directly dependent on it.

I'm sure many of you could do without the coming presidential campaign--and every campaign for the next 13 centuries. I often feel the same way. Yet I keenly await a good, thorough discussion later this year of children's health, and how to pay for it. Several major candidates have already promised to put it at the center of the table.

Candidates chase their tails endlessly over such issues as gun control and welfare. But when politicians of any stripe declare that our society has to assure good health care for all children, I sit up straight and say, "Yes."

Children's Hospital has been saying yes for 130 years. It treats every child, every day, regardless of the family's ability to pay. It incurs a deficit of more than $50 million a year to keep that policy afloat, yet it never wavers in its commitment. Kids need the best. Kids will get it at a certain hospital on Michigan Avenue NW.

I realize that this is a tough time of year for many of you. Credit card bills are beginning to land in mailboxes with ominous thunks. Christmas presents that brought so much pleasure now bring a day of reckoning. Spare cash is an expression that brings snorts of derision, not smiles of recognition.

But please think about the eyes . . .

A child with cancer who desperately wants another birthday.

A child whose legs were badly broken in a car accident, and who just wants another chance to play soccer with his buddies.

A child whose mother was a drug addict. She gave him AIDS. He doesn't deserve his troubles. He just wants enough energy to run, play, go to school.

A child who was born with a hole in his heart--but not in his spirit. He knows he can recover, if only he gets the surgery he needs.

Children's Hospital is a jewel of this community. It stitches us together like no other institution. It deserves your support.

Please remember that no gift is too small. We are deeply grateful for checks in any amount. We know that a $5 check from a senior citizen on a fixed income can be just as much of a "reach" as a $40,000 check from an Internet zillionaire.

If you're on the fence about donating, maybe this will nudge you off, onto the "right" side: We are very, very fortunate to live in a community with a hospital like Children's. If your children ever need the hospital's services, they can count on those services being there.

Your gift to our campaign keeps the flame alive. It says to sick kids: We know, we care, we can read what's in your eyes. There is no better, louder message.

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

In hand as of Jan. 4: $457,899.85.

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.