What local hospital has been the leader in the Washington region for pediatric care for 135 years and now ranks among the Top 10 pediatric hospitals in the nation?

Well, that would be Children's Hospital.

What hospital is the largest non-governmental provider of pediatric care in the District, serving more than 300,000 children annually, from across the region and around the world?

Again, that's Children's, or, as it's officially known, the Children's National Medical Center.

What hospital treats every child that enters its doors, regardless of that child's ability to pay?

It's Children's Hospital, and you bring up a good point, for today marks the start of our annual eight-week campaign to raise money for sick kids.

If you are a parent, you know the almost frightening love you feel for your child, the overwhelming desire to shield your son or daughter from any harm. You know the way your heart drops when you hear a cough or a wheeze, or feel a fever or a chill. You dread the mysterious lump or the bruise that won't heal. You fear the midnight telephone call.

Bad things are rare, you tell yourself.

They're rare, yes, but they happen, and when they happen -- to your child or someone else's -- we're fortunate to have close at hand a place full of men and women who make sick kids better.

That place is Children's Hospital, on Michigan Avenue NW.

Washington Post readers have a long and distinguished connection with Children's. Millions of dollars have been raised through this little corner of the newspaper, starting nearly 60 years ago with columnist Bill Gold and continuing with my predecessor, Bob Levey.

All of that money has gone to serve the same purpose: to guarantee that no child will ever be turned away. Poor families, families without insurance -- all are treated at Children's Hospital. The hospital provided $56 million in uncompensated care last year.

This campaign is unique, both because of its long history and because of the way it's conducted. This is a community campaign, a fundraising drive composed of donations small and large from people just like you. A heartfelt $30 gift is just as appreciated as a $3,000 one.

How much money are you hoping to raise?

Last year's campaign was my first. We surpassed our goal of $600,000, raising $601,166.39.

I was heartened that the tsunami didn't put a crimp in readers' generosity, just as I'm hopeful that Hurricane Katrina and the Kashmir earthquake won't affect us this year. After all, this is a charity in our back yard, one that serves the youngest among us.

This year, we'll have to go without the very generous donations that come from Salon-a-Thon, the annual haircutting extravaganza at Andre Chreky, the Salon Spa. The salon is undergoing a renovation and won't be able to host Salon-a-Thon this January. That event raised $100,000 last year.

Rather than reduce our goal, however, I'm going to keep it the same, challenging readers to give a little more to put us over the top. Our goal: To raise $600,000 for sick and needy children between now and the end of the campaign Jan. 20.

I'm convinced. How do I donate?

There are three easy ways:

Make a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. (Don't be alarmed at the Baltimore mailing address. It's a post office box that our bank, Chevy Chase, uses. All funds go to Children's Hospital right here in Washington.)

Go online, to www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital, and click on "Make a Donation."

To contribute using Visa or MasterCard by phone, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on the recording. All donors receive a thank-you card, and all donations are deductible on state and federal tax returns if you itemize.

May my group participate?

Of course! Bowling teams, ladies' clubs, condo associations, offices -- all these sorts of groups have donated in the past, and we're counting on their support this year. Many offices choose to forgo holiday gifts and donate money to Children's Hospital instead. Some make a contribution in lieu of sending out holiday cards. I acknowledge all group gifts with a mention in this column.

In fact, if you're a group, we'll come right over and pick up your check, weekdays during business hours. Craig Wilton, general manager of US Express, has again volunteered to dispatch one of his couriers. If you need a pickup in the District, call 202-338-3900. If you need a pickup in the suburbs, call 301-883-9000. Tell the operator that the account code is "ChildP."

What if I'd like to donate cash?

Please resist that impulse. Cash has the wonderful quality of being easily transferable and spendable, which means if it goes missing, there's precious little chance of finding it. Checks or credit cards are the way to go.

Foreign cash, on the other hand, we will take. Every year, Michael Checkan of Asset Strategies International Inc. in Rockville converts foreign cash to U.S. funds for our campaign. If leftovers from an overseas trip clutter your sock drawer, send it to me at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Any final thoughts you want to leave us with?

Only one: Please show your support for this wonderful cause and this wonderful hospital.