Paula is retarded. When she waits for the bus, she sometimes pulls out a book and pretends to read. She has seen members of her family read books and Paula tries to be like everybody else. She can't read or write, or tell time or count change. But she is very friendly and hugs a lot. At 27, she is learning to take the bus home after school.

Paula attends Life Skills Center, a habilitation program for lower-functioning adults. The center teaches the basics of everyday living: How to cross the street, tie your shoelaces or find the right bathroom in a restaurant.

For Margaret Hoven, director, teacher, secretary, fund-raiser and founder of the center, Life Skills is a dream come true. Hoven grew up on a farm in Minnesota; she never intended to teach but accepted a job teaching mentally retarded children and adults to support herself. Discovered that she liked it and that she was a good and effective teacher.

"I found my calling," she says simply.

Later, in Washington, she worked at a learning center and found the program for the severely retarded inadequate. They were housed in a drab basement with only tables, chairs and a few puzzles for equipment. Hoven says that is when she began dreaming of an environment in which to teach skills that would enable severely retarded adults to remain with their families and become self-sufficient enough to be placed in sheltered workshops.

"Until this point, my world had been fairly uncomplicated," Hoven says. "I grew up on a farm outside a small town. I knew everyone and everyone knew me, and people were always friendly and helpful. I went to school for 12 years with the same people, never having to meet new people or make new friends." Dealing with Washington's bureaucracy was frightening and overwhelming, she found.

Funding proved to be the most difficult hurdle, she says. Well-meaning people handed out advice. Somebody said she should invite Muriel Humphrey for lunch. She was too shy to do that.

One person suggested she "call HEW." Which number, she wondered.

Write a proposal, someone else said, and take it to some foundations. How, she asked.

Researching, Hoven discovered the city had few training programs to serve mentally retarded adults. She drew up a proposal and submitted it to two foundations known for their support to organizations concerned with education and mental health.

She was invited for interviews and realized that people were more eager to hand out advice than dollars. Worse, they hadn't even read her proposal, she says. She sat tongue-tied and intimidated in the elegant executive suites and left frustrated and angry.

"In retrospect, I imagine that part of the reason we were not even considered was that in addition to being inarticulate, I also looked extremely young," says Hoven, who was 25 at the time. "Not even my fund-raising dress could conceal that."

She approached her church group for funds and moral support and received both.The Community of Christ, to which Hoven belongs, owns La Casa on Mount Pleasant Street in Northwest Washington. They offered her $1,800 and upstairs space which she and members of a support group converted into an apartment.

On Sept. 8, 1974, Life Skills Center opened with two students in the program. Hoven had established criteria for admission. Her clients should be 21 or older. They should be able to dress and feed themselves and know when to go to the bathroom. They should not be prone to seizures because no medical personnel would be on hand. And they should be people who function at such a low level that they could not be considered for sheltered or competitive employment. Calvin and Karl qualified.

Calvin was 30 years old, weighed 225 pounds and stood more than six feet tall. He had been expelled from a program because of his terrible temper. Karl was 22, very nervous and too frightened even to go to the bathroom in this new place, Hoven says. He had "graduated" from a public school at 21 and had been sitting at home for a year.

"The most remarkable thing about that first year were Calvin's rampages," Hoven says. He threw tantrums two or three times a week. He would slam doors and stomp around the center for hours, scaring Karl to death and worrying Hoven enough that she hid the kitchen knives. She says she soon learned that his outbursts were nonviolent, triggered by frustration over not being able to express himself verbally. With the special attention she was able to give, Calvin's communication skills improved and he became calmer. By the end of that first year, Calvin's tantrums had been reduced to an occasional flare-up.

With financial help from churches and friends, the center operated for the first five years on an annual budget of $10,000. But now, with 11 clients in the program and three persons on staff, the overall budget for the center is almost $30,000 a year. A realistic tuition fee would be $333 a month, which none of the clients' familes can pay. Life Skills applied for and finally, in 1979, received membership in United Way. For next year, United Way has pledged $20,000.

For Margaret Hoven this recognition is not enough. "I measure our success not by these things," she says. "The progress of my friends is what really matters."

And they are doing very well. Calvin may soon be ready for employment. He could perhaps work on a trash collection crew, Hoven says,since he is very strong. For most people that isn't much of a career goal. But for Calvin, at 36, it would be an achievement beyond expectation.