In 1883, a group of church women started a summer home in a rented brick house on a hillside in Rock Creek Park. It was designed for sick children from poor families, a place where they could lie in the shade and romp in the grass no matter what their illnesses.

Now 100 years old, The Hospital for Sick Children has a staff of 250 and offers year-round rehabilitation for 180 children, 80 of them outpatients, at its spacious facility at 1731 Bunker Hill Rd. NE.

The hospital celebrated its centennial last week with Mayor Marion Barry on hand to proclaim last Wednesday as Hospital for Sick Children Day and to help the children blow out 100 candles atop a white sheet cake.

Visitors were treated to skits by children in the hospital's enrichment program and music by the Joe Rinaldi Trio, a professional group.

Tashana Shoats, 2, was in the crowd, her head swaying to the music, her beaded cornrows snapping, her face aglow with a smile.

Tashana, now an outpatient, has been treated at the hospital since she was 8 months old. She has severe psychomotor retardation and is not expected to learn to talk or to develop mental skills beyond her current 6-month-old level. But hospital personnel said they hope that one day, with daily stimulation and therapy, she might walk.

Because she receives treatment in the hospital's day program for infants, Tashana is able to live at home. She is in the TEDI (Therapeutic Educational Daycare for Infants) program, for children from birth to age 5 who have severe multiple handicaps. It is one of several day programs available at the hospital.

The Hospital for Sick Children is the only one in the area where the major focus is rehabilitation of children with chronic and debilitating illnesses. Some of its administrators say it is often mistaken for, or overshadowed by, Children's Hospital National Medical Center.

The youngsters at the Hospital for Sick Children are victims of birth defects, accidents, mental retardation and abuse. Because most of them will be in the hospital for at least six months, administrators maintain a home-like atmosphere and foster strong bonds between staff and children.

The children, most from poor families who are Medicaid recipients, have a range of impairments and deformities.

For many of the children, the hospital is an alternative to a nursing home, where they will be placed when they are 21, to live out their lives without therapy or specialized treatment.

In the meantime, the hospital staff works each day to help the children develop skills that will allow them to live as independently as possible, administrators said, whether it's teaching them to walk or helping them learn basic language skills.

Each child is treated by a team of pediatric and rehabilitative nurses, speech and hearing specialists, recreational, physical and occupational therapists and a social worker.

Treatment costs exceed Medicaid reimbursements, and the hospital, a nonprofit facility, seeks grants and donations, said Dr. Constance U. Battle, the executive director.

The hospital opened June 14, 1883, as the Children's Country Home under the direction of church women concerned about the infirm children of low-income families. At that time, the facility could handle only six children.

In 1928, the home expanded to year-round service with increased emphasis on convalescent care, and two years later it moved to its current location, where it could accommodate up to 50 children.

The home changed its name to The Children's Convalescent Home in 1951, but as the range of services expanded, it changed the name again in 1956 to The Children's Convalescent Hospital.

The last change, in 1968, made it the Hospital for Sick Children, a redundancy that belies the unique nature of its services in the District.