Thanksgiving is just behind us, and Christmas is just around the corner. It's hard to believe that another year has come and gone.

During that brief time, the world has witnessed a lot of changes, but one thing that has remained the same is the mission of Children's Hospital National Medical Center.

Children's is traditionally known as "the hospital with the built-in deficit." That deficit has been a central aspect of the hospital's operating budget for over a century, when the first Children's was dedicated to the service of needy children of every race and creed, regardless of their parent's or guardian's ability to pay for such service. Providing the highest quality medical care for sick or injured children and helping maintain the health of all children is the goal of Children's Hospital.

For more than 30 years, the Washington Post has donated a place on this page to announce that mission, to seek funding for the hospital, and to provide recognition for those who make the work of Children's Hospital possible. Each year, our town has responded generously.

Bill Gold, author of "The District Line," conducted the fund-raising campaign for three decades. One year ago, I took over. Once again we'll be working together to direct thousands of dollars to the internationally known facility.

Last year the hospital spent over $3.2 million to help needy children. Readers of this column, and thousands of Bill's fans, affectionately called District Liners, combined resources to send over $230,000 to the hospital's free-care fund. Over $1.7 million more was produced by some other well-known area charity drives and by direct contributions from businesses and individuals.

The remainder, nearly $1 million, had to be diverted from other resources within the hospital.

Needy children make up just a small percentage of the total number of annual hospital admissions. The excellent reputation of Children's Hospital brings parents and patients from around the country to the hospital for specialized treatment in any of the several medical clinics there. Those who can afford to pay for those services are billed accordingly.

The health of a patient comes first at Children's Hospital, and is always the primary concern in every single case. A diligent effort is made to collect the cost of treatment, either from parents who can afford it or from insurance assignments or from other "third party" sources. However, no child is ever turned away from the building because his or her parents cannot pay for treatment. The same superb care is available to both rich and poor alike, because Children's Hospital isn't worried about incurring an operating deficit. It knows the people of the surrounding area will contribute to the free-care fund just as they have every Christmastime since the 1870s.

Many years ago an inspired someone somewhere proposed what has become one of the most productive and best-liked methods for raising money in the workplace, Instead of indulging in the exchange of individual Christmas card greetings among office mates, colleagues could exchange holiday greetings in person, and collect the money saved on cards, postage, and time and donate those funds to a worthy cause.

What could be more worthy than helping to provide free or low-cost medical care to needy children, especially those from surrounding localities and neighborhoods?

The idea caught on quickly and spread through the city like wildfire. Large organizations such as the Army and Navy, and the Bell Telephone Co., began to raise significant funds, all without adding to the usual Christmas cash burdens of their employees. Pinching pennies on interoffice Christmas cards adds up to surprising dollar totals painlessly.

Of course, there are hundreds of good ideas for raising cash, and many of them will be discussed in this column. My job is to tell you which groups participated, how much they contributed, and how they raised the money. No individual contributors are ever named, but every group gift routed to the hospital through For the Love of Children is acknowledged, regardless of amount.

So, once again, it's time to dust off the famous old shoebox, repository of 32 years of concern and goodness, and prepare it to receive the offerings of this Christmas and holiday season. This year should be our best yet. The children are counting on us.