When Peola Butler Dews heard the distressing news about family disintegration in the black underclass, she didn't just talk about it, she did something.

Sitting in her home near 16th Street and Leegate Road in Northwest Washington, the energetic 49-year-old family therapist and mother of eight drew up a concept for assisting family development, which she called "Parents and Youths on Family Functioning" (PAYOFF).

Last week she invited a multiracial group of about 50 ministers, government officials and civic activists to dinner at her home to discuss the plan.

"Peola who?" asked the Rev. Herbert A. Schwandt, pastor of Peace Lutheran Church, 49th Place and Ames Street NE, when he received the invitation from a woman whose name he'd never heard. But because he was impressed with her vision and spunk -- and, he joked, because it was a "free dinner" -- he came to listen to what she had to say.

Other respondents included D.C. Police Chief Maurice J. Turner, who was in Dews' class at Dunbar High School more than 30 years ago; Catherine Kirschner, a Neighborhood Planning Council member; educator Dorothy Scott; Robert Richards, representing D.C. City Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), and welfare rights activist Etta Horn.

Convinced that "there is no reason why our black youths today must be lost to drugs, unwed pregnancy, welfare, unemployment, illiteracy and crime," and that the middle class is so busy moving into the mainstream that it has "forgotten its responsibility to give something back," Dews passed out her ideas in detailed folders only moments after she had dished out plates of Southern delicacies. "Nothing's written in stone," she said, handing out the copies. "It's just one woman's idea."

PAYOFF is planned as an ambitious project that would include canvassing to help determine a community's needs as well as a careful interaction among caring individuals, voluntary organizations and needy families. Dews envisions a church-based project in which families would be "adopted" and helped with job, child care, education, counseling and housing needs. "I'd like to see a pilot project," she said.

Responding favorably to Dews' initiative, her guests stressed the need to assess existing programs and resources carefully and link up with them.

"There are a lot of churches doing a lot of things and meaning well, but their efforts are fragmented," said the Rev. Nathaniel Thomas, head counselor at Howard University and associate pastor of Johnson Memorial Baptist Church in far Southeast Washington. "If they could network, the effect could be greater."

Johnnie Mae Durant, another Neighborhood Planning Council member, asked a rhetorical question. "How do you get to the kids who really want help? A lot of parents and kids aren't motivated . . . . But I like what I see about the extended family. It is something we have gotten away from."

Leaning back in a chair in Dews' paneled basement, Turner was interested and relaxed as the conversation bounced around him. When his turn came to speak, he expressed exasperation that drugs "are eroding the quality of life in this city more than anything else." Of 40,000 annual arrests, according to the city's top law enforcement official, about 11,000 are drug related.

"Ninety-nine percent of these are young black males between 15 and 28. We're losing a generation of our young men to PCP and other drugs. We've lost a lot of values . . . . They're totally eroded from what we had in the past," he said. Turner said he was impressed with the group's commitment and pledged to send a representative to a coordinating committee set up to perfect the proposal, to research resources and to plan start-up strategy.

"We're going to bell this cat," the Rev. James Poindexter of Anacostia's Good Samaritan Baptist Church said in expressing his enthusiasm.

PAYOFF is part of an explosion of "self help" proposals and ideas that have swept this city in recent days. Whether such efforts do indeed begin to "bell the cat," by reversing the dangerous dive into family disintegration, remains to be seen.

But in this pleasant home near Washington's so-called "Gold Coast," I was impressed that these people were determined to be of genuine help to others. "We have to get into these families' frames of reference," was a frequently heard comment.

They were ordinary people stating their willingness to go into perhaps hostile territory and demonstrate that the differences separating them are much less important than the ways in which they are alike.