Bobby Kandt was born March 27, 1963, a normal baby and the fourth child of Ginny and Robert Kandt. Before Bobby was 24 hours old, he stopped breathing and went into convulsions. His parents were never sure what caused the convulsions, but for the next two years Bobby was a happy child, with no discernible problems.

Then, on Thanksgiving Day 1965, Bobby suddenly went into a coma. He was unconscious for 12 days and in convulsions for eight.

"When he came out, he was a vegetable," said Ginny Kandt. "He couldn't even sit up anymore."

Ginny Kandt remembers clearly what the doctors told her: Development had stopped in half of Bobby's brain, the other half had atrophied. Since that Thanksgiving Day, his body has developed but his mind hasn't, said his mother, and he is partially paralyzed.

Last Sunday, Bobby Kandt and his family joined a celebration. The occasion was the dedication of Hartwood House, a short-term residence facility for mentally retarded or physically handicapped persons. Located at 2903 Popkins Lane in Fairfax County, Hartwood House is the creation of 23 Northern Virginia families and their supporters.

It's a place where youngsters like 18-year-old Bobby can learn the skills they will need to become self-sufficient. And it's a place where families like the Kandts can send children like Bobby, to give themselves a brief respite from the constant attention such children need.

Self-sufficiency is the goal at Hartwood House, for itself and its participants. The people who formed Hartwood Foundation three years ago have brought the project to fruition through cooperative labor, the goodwill of their friends and their community -- and without government funds.

"We saw the handwriting on the wall three years ago," said Judith Rosen, organizer and president of Hartwood House, whose 16-year-old son suffers from Down's Syndrome, a disorder that results in some form of mental retardation. "Even at that time the best-intentioned public efforts were falling behind the need for residential group homes.

"There was no way they could keep up with the growing demand and longevity of handicapped persons. You had to be destitute, parentless and out on the street to get public assistance. We decided the only way to develop our residential facility right was to do it ourselves."

With two other families, Rosen began looking for funds and a home for the planned facility. Gradually, the group of three grew to include 20 families, who each loaned $1,000 to the foundation.

With those funds and donations from churches, private foundations and individuals, the Hartford Foundation raised nearly $70,000, Rosen said. Half was earmarked for Hartwood House, and the rest has been held aside as a nest egg for a permanent group home.

Because the Hartwood Foundation was determined to avoid using government funds, the search for a building became crucial to its goal.

Last year, members found St. Louis Catholic Church, which was looking for a social service group to use its vacant parish house.

"We were considering a number of uses," said the Rev. James W. McMurtrie, church pastor, "like a halfway house for criminals or a daycare center. But when the Hartwood group found out about our house, they just about camped out by the door until we decided to go with them!"

At $1 a year, the price was right, and Hartwood organizers began refurbishing the two-story dwelling -- again without public funds. Local merchants donated furnishings and a refrigerator, plumbers offered free help and the Fairfax Organization of Christian and Jews United in Service knocked a hole in the building's back wall to erect a ramp.

The result is a group space for a director and three staff members, six rooms for ambulatory participants, two for those confined to wheelchairs, a kitchen, dining room, living room and a backyard vegetable garden.

So far, Hartwood House had hired three staff members. The director is Cathy Arocho, 24, who holds a bachelor's degree in special education and is working on a master's degree in the same field. Arocho, who moved into the house two months ago, will be paid $1,000 a month plus room and board. The other two staff members are Finnish teachers, both students pursuing advanced degrees in special education, who will each work 20 hours a week at the house in return for living quarters there.

The only remaining abstacle to a official opening is approval of a state license, which Rosen expects will come in time to open the house to clients in about two weeks.

When the house does open, it will be able to handle five to eight participants at a time. Working with tha family, Arocho will develop an individual program for each participant, designed to help them gain skills and confidence in living away from home. The focus will be on daily living skills, such as fixing meals and keeping house.

Families can reserve dates at the house as far as a year in advance, Rosen said. The cost is $20 a day and includes room and board.

Since the purpose of the house is to help clients become self-sufficient, Hartwood organizers suggest that clients may, at first, want to stay at the house for short periods, such as overnight, and as they become more confidnet, schedule longer stays. Eventually, Arocho said, families will be able to reserve up to 30 days a year, with a maximum of two weeks for each time period.

"Our primary goal isn't respite care for parents, it's training for kids," said Rosen.

For the Kandts, Hartwood House is the answer to years of struggle and concern.

"We all need help to face up to the daily problems," Ginny Kandt said. "It weighs on you. You can look forward to it every night and every morning.

"Last weekend was the first time in a year we were able to go away together, because one of my sons came to take care of Bobby."

Like many other parents involved with Hartwood, Kandt, 53, worries about the day she and her husband won't be able to care for Bobby. Hartwood House has eased those worries.

"When one of us passes away, what's going to happen to Bobby?" Ginny Kandt asks. "I could never care for him without my husband. I could never place him in an institution.

"I'd have to find a place with plenty of love. I think we've found it here at Hartwood House."