As a child growing up in Washington, Kimi Gray used to wonder how her grandmother could feed the dozen or so neighborhood children who regularly congregated at the family house on Saturday mornings. With only one watermelon and a few leftovers from breakfast, the task seemed impossible.

But Gray's grandmother insisted that she could feed everyone and, to emphasize that she did not like being second-guessed, she would tell little Kimi, "If I say a roach can pull a cart, then you hitch it up -- and load the cart."

Indeed, Gray's grandmother somehow managed to feed those children, and these days Gray frequently recalls those words as chairwoman of the board of directors of the Kenilworth Parkside Management Corp. She has matched her grandmother's efforts by helping create something of a miracle in public housing management.

Once a deteriorating cluster of city-run, low-rise public buildings sandwiched between a garbage dump and a highway in Northeast Washington, Kenilworth Parkside is now a showcase tenant-managed housing project that is cited by some housing experts as a model for the nation.

Once a shy and reclusive person who struggled to raise five children, Gray, 41, has emerged as an astute and aggressive political operative. She has been a strong supporter of Mayor Marion Barry, who in turn supported tenant management of Kenilworth.

Gray also has close ties with the Reagan administration, which has given her more than $13 million in housing rehabilitation funds. Tomorrow, the administration will honor her with a National Volunteer Award for her efforts to send neighborhood children to college.

Gray's transformation from welfare mother to chairwoman of a mulitimillion-dollar management corporation obviously was difficult. But Gray makes it sound easy.

"The art of handling money is the same whether you get a check for $185 a month or several checks totaling $100,000," Gray muses. "The bottom line is you never have enough, so you have priorities. As a welfare mother, it was feeding the children and paying the rent. As chairperson of the board, the priority is training our youth. We believe that education is the key to freedom."

Gray's management philosophy is that everyday occurrences such as broken windows and toilets are matters that residents should be more responsible for, while the corporation should concern itself with long-term goals like improved day care facilities, business cooperatives and the eventual purchase of the property.

"My grandmother used to tell me, 'Don't let the white folk fool you. The fight is not about race or poverty. It's about owning land.' So the way I see it, despite all of the accolades, we are just another project until we figure out a way to buy this place."

A key factor in her figuring is a program she started in 1975 called "College Here We Come," which has sent 586 students from the Kenilworth projects to college. The idea is that they will not forget where they came from.

One such student was Michael Price, who was sent to Payne College in Augusta, Ga., and then Elizabeth City College in North Carolina before being brought back to Howard University.

"I sent him away to get his head screwed on right because he was into Kenilworth, hanging on the fences, doing nothing," Gray said. "He was a high school dropout and had no ambitions, no dream of going to college. Somewhere in the back of his head was an idea that he wanted to be a draftsman. But I told him no: You will be an architect because you will be the one to redesign Kenilworth."

Price graduated from the Howard University School of Architecture in 1983 and now heads the Kenilworth construction management company that oversees the $13.5 million in federal rehabilitation funds.

Gray moved into Kenilworth in 1966 after she and her husband separated. She vowed that all of her five children would finish high school, and they have. She vowed to improve day care services at the project, and they were improved. She vowed to reduce crime at Kenilworth, and it did decline.

When she began pushing for tenant management of the project, some said she was crazy.

"I told Kimi it would never happen," said Roy Gladys, who is now manager of the housing complex. "But then she started with this, 'If I say a roach can pull a cart . . . .' "