Four years ago when Jonathon Noonan was diagnosed as having cerebral palsy, a brain disorder that impairs the body's motor functions, his parents thought he would never walk normally.

At an age when most children could walk by themselves, 2-year-old Jonathon could barely stand up.

Compounding the matter was the financial difficulty Kathleen and David Noonan were facing. They could not afford the expensive costs of private care and therapy for Jonathon. "We were desperate," said Kathleen Noonan, whose husband attended law school and worked nights to support the family. "It was very financially tough for us."

Fortunately for the Noonans and hundreds of families like them in the Washington area, doctors referred them to an orthopedic clinic in Northwest Washington that provides free medical care and assistance for economically disadvantaged, handicapped children.

Since turning to the Kiwanis Orthopedic Clinic, which rents a small building adjacent to the Sibley Memorial Hospital and is supported by the Kiwanis Club of Washington, D.C., Jonathon has undergone twice-weekly, one-hour sessions involving various exercises to help him strengthen existing motor functions.

Jonathon, now 6 years old, has learned to walk on his heels, a difficult task for some cerebral palsy victims. The disorder occurs when the nerve paths are blocked by blood in the brain before or at birth or during infancy.

"Untreated, he probably would still have difficulty walking," said Ann Martin, director of the clinic, which treats and provides vocational guidance to 350 patients annually.

Since 1923, when Kiwanis members decided to invest $500 to help in the care of handicapped children, the clinic has provided free medical care to thousands of children whose parents could not afford expensive hospital care.

Now, with an annual budget of $150,000 and nearly $2 million in the coffers, the clinic provides "total care" for handicapped children.

With the assistance of local hospitals and various health agencies, the clinic provides housing, food, clothing and family counseling. In addition, the clinic acts as a referral service and gives vocational guidance to handicapped children. "It's a great way to spend money," said Jackson Krill, secretary of the Kiwanis Foundation, an arm of the Kiwanis Club that provides most of the funds for the clinic.

Although there is a two-week waiting period to process an application, Martin said the clinic has "never turned down anyone" who has been determined to be in need of services provided by the clinic. Kiwanis affiliation is not required.

Since 1970, the clinic has worked with District schools in identifying children afflicted with scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine. About one-third of the patients who use the clinic are afflicted with the ailment, Martin said.

Three doctors volunteer at the clinic and interns at Georgetown University Medical Center receive training there. Wives of Kiwanis members volunteer to be receptionists.

In a physical therapy room that resembles a romper room more than a clinic, Jonathon worked out for about an hour on a recent morning.

Biting his lower lip, determined not to fall, Jonathon stood precariously on one leg while his other foot rested on a beach ball. His task was to roll the ball side to side with the arch of his foot.

What would be a simple endeavor for most 6-year-olds was an agonizing challenge as Jonathon swayed awkwardly and contorted to regain balance.

With a little help from a physical therapist, who was holding him on the hips, Jonathon gained control and accomplished the feat.

His reward for the day was a chocolate lollipop.

For Kathleen Noonan, who for the last four years has driven 45 minutes twice a week from Damascus to bring Jonathon to the clinic, the reward was more significant: Jonathon will be going to kindergarten at Woodfield Elementary School in Montgomery County next month.

"I want to be a candyman when I grow up," said Jonathon as he vigorously unwrapped the lollipop. Last week, he wanted to be fireman, Jonathon's mother said with a smile.