* Early this year, Falls Church residents Kenneth and Melinda Brown worried that they would never be able to pay a thick folder of hospital bills related to illnesses that had plagued them since last year.

The Browns, both of whom are mildly learning-disabled, had lost months from their jobs as clerks at the federal Office of Personnel Management. They would find terse letters from collection agencies tacked to their apartment door, and had sold household appliances and dishes to help pay the bills.

Five months later, Kenneth Brown says he is beginning to see his way out of debt. With the help of monthly checks of $1,000 from Masonic temples in the couple's native Illinois, he said, their finances and their lives are increasingly stable.

"The check from the lodge buys food and medication and helps pay our rent. Things are stable; they're going better than they were, but I still have the debts," he said.

Brown estimated that he and his wife still owe $4,000 in medical bills, less than half of what they owed in January. After an operation this summer to remove stomach tumors, Brown said, he should be able to return to work full time. "I've improved a lot," he said. "As soon as I get this last operation over with, I'll be on the road to recovery."

The Browns qualified for little federal or state help with the mounting bills because they have no children and both were employed.

Social workers familiar with the Browns' situation have said that while the couple's economic situation made them typical of the "working poor," their optimism and determination were rare.

"I am trying to think positively," Brown said. "I don't have to come back and find notices on my door any more, or find someone from Federal Express serving me a warrant . . . . It's 100 percent better than what it was."