For nearly 25 years, thousands of D.C. youths who've gotten into trouble with the law or in some way "fallen through the cracks" have been caught by a Roving Leader.

The Roving Leader program, part of the D.C. Department of Recreation, began in 1956 as a means of ending the gang warfare then peaking in the city's Shaw community.

Today, Roving Leaders, most with professional training or experience in counseling, help young people overcome a wide range of problems -- from familly to school to employment. Most of their work is done with 13- to 17-year-old youths because of the high concentration of problems in that age group.

Roving Leaders, 40 men and women from 27 to 47 years old, work with individuals or groups, using recreation as a means to stimulate achievement, prevent inner city crime and teach responsible citizenship.

Fred Saunders, deputy director of the program, explains. "If we can help a kid learn to respect the referee and the other players in a basketball game, we can help him to become better adjusted in his everyday environment where he must understand and respect police, teachers and others."

Roving Leaders, assigned to individual wards, stay on the move so they remain highly visible. Their office is anywhere young people go -- street corners, poolrooms, swimming pools, basketball courts, parties and their homes.

"If you want to affect these kids' lives," Saunders says, "you have to be where they are. And they have to feel that you know where they're coming from."

Program director Carver Leach underscores the point. "We try to help youth manage their conflict and become aware of the services available for their use."

Last week, for example, when a social worker told Roving Leader William Townsend about Billy Fenner, an 18-year-old who needed help getting back into school and finding a job Townsend was on the case.

Saturday, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Townsend, who holds a master's degree in education from Howard University, was sitting in the young man's East Capitol Dwellings living room sorting out his problems.

Townsend tells Fenner he may be able to help him get a permanent job Monday, despite a criminal record. "I just got some information about new jobs available for youths 16 or older and out of school. Can you meet me at 604 C St. NW Monday morning?"

Fenner smiles and nods. He'll be there.

It's the beginning of what Townsend thinks will be a long relationship. During his 10 years as a Roving Leader in Ward 7, he has helped many young men rebuild their lives. He says direct involvement, friendship and tact are the secret weapons Leaders use to win trust.

"We don't try to front young people off. We don't put them in win-lose situations whereas we're seen as the adult-authority and they're treated as the problem kid," he explains.

"If there's a crap game, I'll wait till it's over and hope the guy I want to talk to makes his point. That way I can talk to him without him feeling-uptight. He can be himself."

Everett (Doc) Payne, who's been a Leader 15 years, first spent two years teaching in the District school system until he noticed that many students had learning deficiencies caused by problems at home and in their communities. He became a Roving Leader to "help develop the full potential of kids so they can learn in school."

The primary rewards of the job are not in the pay check, he says.

"I may not get rich doing this, but I get a lot of satisfaction helping a kid get his life together.To me that's worth a million dollars."

Department of Recreation budget cutbacks have cost the Roving Leader program five leaders so far, and it might lose more.

However, Garry Garber, 50, the first Roving Leader, remains optimistic. "I've seen a lot of programs come and go, but we're still here and I expect we'll be here for a long time because our people give of themselves.

"We love the street," he says. "We love to interact with people (and) help them set their priorities; (we) help them help themselves."