For weeks, the 18 young adults who attend the D.C. Adult Center of United Cerebral Palsy had worked to make and wrap Christmas gifts for relatives-mostly simple trinket boxes, painstakingly handcrafted from cigar cartons, sprayed golden and decorated with pictures.

"They were of no value, other than the love they represented," said Sara Deane, the center's executive director.

When they were completed, the boxes were stowed in 11 canvas sacks and piled beneath a Christmas tree in the National Baptist Memorial Church, 16th Street and Columbia Road NW, awaiting a party last night.

But on Thursday, when she arrived for work at the center-located in the church building-staff member Elizabeth Brooks Naming'ona discovered they were missing. She called the D.C. police department with a brief report. It was listed routinely as petty theft.

It would have ended there, simply another crime statistic and a joyless party, except that somebody told a radio reporter, who broadcast a brief account yesterday on WTOP.

Among the listeners, on his was to work, was Gary Hankins, public information officer for the D.C. police. Arriving at headquarters, he swung into action.

Hankins telephoned Thomas Tague, president of the D.C. chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. Tague and others talked to Deane, the palsy center director, then contacted local businesses soliciting replacement gifts. The response, as Tague told it later, was overwhelming-perhaps as many as 500 items, ranging from Chanel No. 5 perfume to toys and packs of chewing gum. The trunks and backseats of two automobiles were crammed.

Two large drug chains, Peoples and Drug Fair, invited Tague to send officers to their warehouses in Alexandria to pick up assorted items. Peoples employes, attending a Christmas party of their own, stopped exchanging gifts and donated them to the cause.

"They were wonderful," said Officer Janet Lansing as gifts were being lugged into police headquarters to be wrapped by volunteer clerks and officers, Ethelean Flood sorted packages into separate cartons for men, women and children.

Meantime, according to Deane, radio listeners telephoned with offers of items and cash.

There were offers of the use of a credit card for a shopping spree, and a bakery owner from White Flint sent two boxes of chocolate chip cookies.

So last night, the mood was festive, as center members and their friends gathered for recitations, gift exchanges and singing. "God moves in mysterious ways-look here," exclaimed Herbert Wright, gesturing at the stack of gifts. His daughter, Catherine, attends the center.

"I felt kind of upset (when the theft was discovered)," Conseula Davis, another center member told a visitor. "I still feel tore up inside-but now it's joy and all that."