While many of their colleagues spend their after-school hours playing sports, practicing cheerleading or simply hanging out, a group of Oakton High School students has found a rewarding activity that teaches them something about others and a lot about themselves.

The students belong to the Partners Club, a seven-year-old volunteer group whose members work with mentally retarded students from the Kilmer Center school in Vienna and the Davis Vocational Center in Falls Church.

The club was founded by Pat Palmore, whose daughter was a student at Kilmer, and it has grown from a membership of about 20 Oakton students to about 150 under the leadership of faculty members George Komar and Jim Brahaney.

Only about half of the Oakton students who attend the club's first meeting each fall return, but for those who do, "you eventually see their personalities change," Komar said.

"There is instant feedback . . . . For both the club members and the kids they work with, there is a lot to learn from each other," he said.

Christie Faith, an 18-year-old Oakton senior, said that at first she forced herself to attend Partners activities but that now she believes that the experience has toughened her character and made her more understanding.

"I used to be kind of shy," she said. "Now I feel more comfortable if I speak in front of a group. It has given me self-confidence . . . {and} made me realize a lot of things I have and others don't."

The club's initial purpose was to help mentally handicapped youngsters train for the Special Olympics, but as the number of participants has grown, so has the list of activities.

Club members and their partners attend high school sporting events, organize outings to local pizza or hamburger restaurants, plan holiday parties or picnics and attend such special events as the recent air show at Andrews Air Force Base.

About 50 retarded students belong to the group -- the oldest is 22 -- and the waiting list is long, according to Komar and Palmore.

"Most of these kids have never had normal friends, and they never get to go to places like McDonald's with a group of people their own age," said Annie Sher, whose son Sandy, 20, has been in the club since its inception.

Sher said the experiences her son has had in Partners "he could not have found anywhere else. It is important for all these kids that they have someone willing to do things with them that are their own age, and not family members."

"The children work with the same one or two high school students -- depending on the degree of their handicap -- all year," said Palmore, who got the idea for Partners after hearing of a similar organization in Texas.

"Some of these 'children' are really 15 or 20 years old, but people have a tendency to always treat them as if they were babies," she said. " . . . What Partners is all about is having these handicapped kids treated as human beings."

The program has been so successful that it received a "Year of the Youth" award in 1985, presented by Education Secretary William J. Bennett. Yet the idea has not spread locally.

Efforts to start similar programs at Robinson and "Sometimes, just a smile from those kids can bring you up so much."

-- Christie Faith

West Springfield high schools, with Palmore's support, failed. Palmore said those efforts lacked the faculty support that the club receives at Oakton.

Komar, who has taught biology in Fairfax County schools for more than a decade, says he does not know why he got involved with the group. "There was a lot of apprehension on my part because I had never been around handicapped people," he said. "I wasn't certain how the {Oakton} kids would handle it, because I didn't know how I would handle it . . . . The first time, it was just shocking" to see so many retarded youngsters in one room.

What hooked him, he says, was the instant feedback he got from them.

For most of the Oakton students who belong to Partners, club activities provide their first exposure to the mentally handicapped. For some, the experience alters their lives.

Like many past and present club members, Sheryl Dove, 18, who is in her second year as club president, said she is leaning toward a major in special education when she enrolls at the University of West Virginia in September.

Christie Faith, who will attend the University of Virginia, wants to study brain disorders.

"Sometimes, just a smile from those kids can bring you up so much," she said recently. "Once I was having such a bad day, and I ran into this kid who was in Partners.

He just said, 'Christie, smile. Let's go shoot baskets,' and all I could do was smile . . . . Next fall, I know I'm going to miss those kids so much."