Last week, after his story appeared in The Washington Post, Paul M. Williams got a phone call from a stranger who said he wanted to do something to help.

"I can't believe this is happening to you," the man said. "if there's anything I can do, please call me."

Williams, 34, has been getting similar reactions from friends and strangers alike since he went public with his story last Thursday.

The D.C. native is returning to prison sometime next week despite a success that doesn't happen often to ex-offenders: He has gone straight, he has stayed out of trouble, and not only is he working full time, he is working to help ex-offenders make the transition from prison to the community.

He was originally scheduled to report to the Atlantic County jail in New Jersey last week, but since then has been given more time to clean up his office at Inner Voices, a self-help program for ex-offenders in Northwest Washington, and to get his personal affairs in order.

Williams also has been using these last days to appeal to more government officials in a last attempt to avoid going to prison.

And, as their time together grows shorter, he and his fiancee, Ricki Ballard, are wrestling with emotions ranging from surprise and gratefulness to anger and sorrow.

The couple, who have been living together for the last three years, are busy trying to find a place for Ballard to live and are storing Williams' belongings. They are grateful for the support they have been receiving from friends and strangers, but bitter that the circumstances are tearing them apart and cutting short not only their plans of marriage but williams' plans to become a lawyer and continue his rehabilitation work at Inner Voices.

Ballard also has suffered in another way from the publicity about Williams' plight. She is afraid she may have to leave her job as program director of adult education at the downtown YMCA.Some colleagues have blamed her for several recent robberies, saying she is suspect because her fiance is an ex-offender and works with ex-offenders.

"So I'm going to look for something else, because it's kind of hard to work with people who think that about you and are petty that they would use something like Paul's situation to try to find who's snatching purses in the office," said Ballard.

In the meantime, she is supporting Williams in his bid to get a sentence reduction or pardon.

Williams was sentenced 2 1/2 years ago to a 10- to 15-year prison sentence in New Jersey after being convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Since then he's been out on bail pending appeal, but his appeals almost have been exhausted, despite recommendation letters of good behavior from officials in the criminal justice community in the District. Williams says he'll be lucky if he get out on parole in three years.

Williams met Monday with D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who told Williams he would try to obtain a 30-day delay so more alternatives can be investigated before Williams has to go to prison. Williams also said he expected to meet with D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy or a member of his staff to talk about the situation.

He also said the National Organization of Prison Alternatives is investigating the possibility of seeking a pardon from New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne. However, Williams says the chances of a pardon are slim.

In the meantime, Williams hopes to keep his case before the people by going on radio talk shows and television, and he says his friends may be able to raise more money this week to pay outstanding attorney's fees and to set up a fund to get money for additional fees.

"But I don't have any illusions about the press coverage," he says. "The attention from people in the community makes you feel good, but once I go to Jersey, and they slam that door, I'm going to be there at least three years."

Williams says he hopes to work in some kind of an educational program while he's in prison, but he is afraid of becoming bitter.

"If I have to go back and serve this time, then my belief in the criminal justice system is shattered. I thought this kind of work was for me, dealing with these young minds. But I also feel that I've gotta get a break somewhere, and it just hasn't panned out.

"I know I won't go back to this kind of work.I can't preach to people about right and wrong and the criminal justice system after having been dragged through it this way. I have a certain amount of belief in the American way, and apple pie and milk and the hostages, but if I have to go back and do four years, then I'm going to try to go somewhere and start all over."