Lula Nicks, 69, sat outside her Northwest Washington home yesterday like a matriarch holding court.

Dressed in a bright red dress and lounging in a white lawn chair on a sidewalk sprinkled with sawdust, she was surrounded by cans of paint, sheets of dry wall, plywood, and some of the 19 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren who share her home.

"I'm so happy I could cry," she said, as more than 20 volunteers patched her roof, lugged in a new refrigerator, shored up her kitchen floor and gave her house a fresh coat of paint, all free.

"I didn't know what I was going to do to fix it up," she said of her three-story brick row house at 1724 Willard St. NW. "My husband died in 1975, and it just started falling down. There's no way in the world I could have fixed it up, because I don't have the money."

For Nicks and 41 other Washington families, it was Christmas in April yesterday, as more than 700 volunteers fanned out over the city and spread 450 gallons of paint, hauled away tons of garbage, repaired countless leaky pipes and replaced electrical wiring.

The effort was organized by a group called Christmas in April, which once a year pulls together a disparate collection of lawyers, businessmen, students, government officials, police officers, bankers and others who have volunteered their time and skills to help spruce up the homes of poor, elderly and handicapped persons.

With about $25,000 worth of supplies donated by local businesses and other groups, the volunteers divided into work crews and attacked 42 homes and five community shelters, arriving about 7 a.m. and laboring until about 4 p.m.

Christmas in April spokeswoman Mila Albertson, who works for Blackburn & Co., a media brokerage firm in Northwest, said that the project began in 1981 with 18 homes in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of the District. It expanded this year to include homes in every ward in the city except 7 and 8.

"Next year, we hope to add some homes over there as well" if the popularity of the project continues to grow, she said. "We're a neighbor-helping-neighbor project, in the true spirit of volunteerism."

Inside Nick's house, the smell of paint and turpentine wafted up the stairwell, along with the sounds of hammers, saws and an occasional shout for another paint brush.

"This is what's known as a challenge, an opportunity for growth," quipped the "captain" of the work crew, Tom Henderson, 46, head of the D.C. Bar's counsel's office.

Many of the workers were from his office, Henderson said, supported by many of Nicks' grandchildren, who pitched in to help hang sheetrock, prepare lunch and paint.

About two miles away, the 1400 block of Parkwood Place NW was getting a facelift that workman Drew Boatner likened to a "neighborhood renewal."

Workers and residents were spackling, sanding and painting their way through eight houses on the block in what Boatner, who works for the First American Bank of D.C., attributed to neigborhood pride and community spirit.

"I'm an amateur handyman, and this is the perfect charitable thing for me to do, because it uses the skills I have acquired over the years," he explained. "We do the best we can, and when we walk away, we leave someone happy."

"I just love every bit of it," said Teresa Jones, who owns the house at 1421 Parkwood Place, where Boatner was working. "It's a good feeling to find so many people who wanted to donate their time to help us out like this."

Christmas in April board member Michael Helwig said that the 47 homes and shelters selected for repairs this year were chosen from about 100 applicants, "most of whom were suggested by church or community groups that said these people need help."

"You see so much destruction on a daily basis," said Helwig, a homicide detective with the D.C. police department. "It's nice to get out and rebuild."