Once upon a time, in a place called Cleveland Park, a toy plane sat alone in the corner of a playroom, dusty and forgotten.

It had been a while since the two little brownhaired girls who lived there had played with the plane; shiny new dolls and games had taken its place.

Then one day about two weeks ago, the little girls' mother, Sheila White, came up the stairs to the playroom. She told her children that it was getting near Christmas and some children wouldn't have as nice a holiday as they would. So, she said, "perhaps you could pick out some toys to give to them."

And so began the odyssey of the little plane, a red-white-and-blue plastic jet about a foot long that came with its won airport and passengers. Before its trip was over, the plane would travel to two churches in Northwest and then on across the river to a needy family in Anacostia.

This Christmas, thousands of people in churches and charities all over the area have pocketed their worries about oil and inflation. They have lost their floating anxieties to a spirit; for a day, at least, giving is the thing.

They've donated thousands of pounds of food, reams of old clothes and carloads of toys, giving something they really don't need to people who do. a

The story of the little plane is one of thousands like it playing today in the area. It began with the White family of Cleveland Park. Sheila White, mother of Kendall, 4, and Sydney, 9, the former owners of the plane, explained:

"There was a good lesson in church last Sunday. It had to do with being touched by someone in a certain way and in turn touching someone else . . . My kids always appreciated the idea of giving up things for other people, but you have to prompt and nurture their desiires to do so."

Sitting near the Christmas tree in her spacious, renovatd home and bouncing her youngest child on her knee, White said she always felt good about helping others on Christmas and wanted to make sure her children learned that as they grew up.

"I sat the kids down and explained that other kids aren't as fortunate as they are, and that they could help make those children's Christmas a good one too," she said.

"I kind of urged them toward giving away thins that weren't being well used and that someone else could use better. I think they understand."

Daughter Sydney said she understands, and that she doesn't really miss her toy. "I forgot abut it, already," she said. "The poor people need things and we love to give to them."

White and her girls took the plane and some other toys to their church, St. Columbia's Episcopal Church on Albermarle Street NW, a week ago last Sunday. Through a program called Outreach, which donates canned foods, linens, clothes, household goods and toys to poor people year-round, the plane was taken the same day to the Community of Hope, a mission house on Belmont Street NW that serves its neighborhood.

The mission, housed in a converted apartment building, provides medical care, social services and a message. "We're here to help the poor, but also to build relationships," said Rev. Thomas Nees, its pastor.

"We welcome giving in any form -- the people in the neighborhood are in great need, especially at a time like Christmas. For these people, Christmas is here, but they also have to pay rent. This way they don't have to choose between the two . . .

"But there is a real dilemma in charity. You need to try and preserve the dignity of a person who receives. I guess that a lot of what we get is coming out of guilt, idealism and pity of suburban people, and I suppose that's okay. But it is better if the giving comes out of relationship. One who gives should be committed to staying with the person who receives at all times, not just Christmas. That is how the walls are broken down."

"We don't ask what the motives of people who give are, but we are kind of doing the following-through for them. We're here 24 hours a day. We stick by the people who need our services."

As Nees spoke, Thursday, W. W. Johnson, a police officer stationed at 7th District headquarters in Anacostia, was in a back room, choosing a few boxes of toys -- including the plane -- to give to needy children in that neighborhood.

Yesterday, members of the 7th District's Community Services section came in at 8:30 in the morning on their own time to clean and box parcels full of toys, fruit and potato chips (left over from a children's party Friday). The little plane sat in a box on the floor, awaiting the next leg of its journey.

Lt. William White III expalined that D.C. police have been doing this for 11 Christmases now. "We're aware of people in the community who really don't have the chance to have an enjoyable Christmas. We want to help, and on the way, we can show them that police officers do something more than incarcerate people. We can show that we have a valid and true concern."

Finally, at about 10 a.m., officers Frank Copeland and Penelope Napper loaded a squad car with toys and set out. They went first to the apartment on Butler Street SE where Ethel Johnson and her five children, ages 3 to 13, live.

A Teddy Pendergrass record record was playing on a backgroom stereo when the visitors arrived, and Veronica, 13, carlton, 9, Jewell, 5, and Joy, 3, were running about the apartment. Santa had come after all. In an instant, the floor was a mass of crumbled green and red wrapping paper.

While her kids played with their new toys -- a set of Charlie's Angels dolls, a couple of transistor radios, two calculators and the little plane -- Ethel Johnson cried just a little and searched for words.

"I just don't know what to say," she said. "I really didn't have the money to buy them all toys. . . . I, well, I just want to thank everyone. This is a beautiful Christmas."

Little Joy kissed the plane and told it she loved it. And if you looked real close, you might have seen the little plane smile right back.