It used to be that when people hit hard times, they turned to their families for help. But in today's highly mobile society, family members are scattered and many people in need find they have nowhere to turn.

That's where such groups as the Annandale Christian Community for Action (ACCA) play a vital role.

An umbrella group consisting of volunteers from 26 churches representing more than half a dozen Christian denominations, ACCA was founded in 1967 to help provide affordable day care for low- and moderate-income working parents in Annandale.

Since then, ACCA has grown into one of the largest church-sponsored social services agencies in Northern Virginia.

It operates two day care centers for 240 children, runs a warehouse that distributes second-hand furniture, provides a van for District and Northern Virginia residents to visit relatives in prison, delivers hot meals to the elderly and infirm, gives emergency financial assistance, staffs two shelters for the homeless, and operates a food pantry that makes food available on an emergency basis.

It has an annual budget of $930,000, which is funded by the churches, the county and the federal government.

"{The ACCA volunteers} are ready to step in in an emergency," said Kitty Yost, supervisor of community services for Fairfax County's Department of Social Services, which for many years has referred clients to ACCA. "They have provided emotional support as well as concrete services. They have been there when people needed them."

One person who needed them was Bertha Pearson, a single mother with two children, now 16 and 6.

Ten years ago, she was faced with the dilemma of finding someone to care for her oldest daughter while she went to work or staying home and going on welfare.

She ended up going to work because she was able to put her daughter in the ACCA day care program. A few years ago, Pearson got her high school equivalency diploma, and ACCA even offered to pay for college courses as well. Pearson's younger daughter attended the day care center from age 2 to 5 and goes to the summer camp every year.

But ACCA's concern for Pearson went beyond looking after her children. Pearson remembers that ACCA gave her furniture for her apartment, provided emotional support while she was going through a domestic crisis, brought her food when she had none and paid the rent when she came up short.

"They helped me through so many situations when I felt like giving up," said Pearson, who now works as a supervisor for the Sverdrup Corp. in Rosslyn. "They would sense when I was feeling down and ask me if there was a problem, something wrong. Those ladies {at ACCA} are like my family. I wouldn't be where I am without them."

The women Pearson referred to are Lois Hunt and Emily Ruffing, who run ACCA's two day care centers and who were among the representatives of eight churches at ACCA's first meeting at Peace Lutheran Church in 1967.

In the early '60s, Ruffing and her late husband Fred became involved in the Christian Family Movement of the Catholic Church, which emphasized social action to help the needy in the community.

They were among the church representatives who met at Peace Lutheran that night 20 years ago to discuss what to do about 13 children from low-income families who were no longer eligible for day care under a government-subsidized program at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. By the end of that first meeting, Fred Ruffing had persuaded the ministers of the churches to pledge $1,000 toward a day care center.

"The genius of Fred Ruffing was that he would not let people go until they agreed to meet in two weeks and give a report on what action they had taken," said ACCA volunteer Ted Gleiter, who coordinates the van ministry that shuttles District and Northern Virginia families to visit relatives incarcerated in Alderson prison in West Virginia.

"That impressed me. We weren't forming another committee. Fred said we had things to do and we did them," Gleiter said.

Shortly after the first meeting, Gleiter persuaded the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to appropriate $10,000 toward a day care center. Another $10,000 was raised by ACCA members, and $10,000 came from parents.

Today, with an operating budget of $800,000, ACCA's two day care centers care for 240 children, 2 to 10 years old, all from low- and moderate-income families. Many are the children of immigrants from Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Central America.

"It's a little United Nations," Ruffing said.

All of the parents work and contribute between $2.25 and $20 per week, depending on their income. Fairfax County provides more than 50 percent of the centers' funding, and the federal government and private donations make up the rest. ACCA volunteers and paid staff provide transportation to and from the centers and three meals a day. A plan is in the works to open a day care center for infants.

"It's an outstanding program. These are services that if the county were to undertake them alone, the costs would be out of sight. By working with ACCA, it's a lot less expensive," said county board member Thomas M. Davis III.

While ACCA is best known for its day care, its other programs have helped people throughout the community. Through the Family Emergency Committee, ACCA has provided financial assistance to people who cannot pay their rent and are threatened with eviction. ACCA will also provide money for families to pay utility and medical bills.

Every Saturday, ACCA volunteers pick up furniture donated by members of the community and deliver it to those who need it. Over the years, they have furnished entire homes. According to Betty Jane Davis, coordinator of the furniture warehouse, as families get on their feet and become more prosperous, they will often give back the furniture they received so that it can be used to help someone else.

ACCA volunteers also deliver hot meals five days a week to the elderly and infirm through the Meals on Wheels program.

"It's great," said Annandale resident Ocie Brown, 82, who received meals several times after undergoing surgery. "I don't have any relatives around and I don't have too much company, so I am glad to see them."

Although ACCA is not the only organization of its type in Northern Virginia, it was among the first. Similar organizations include SHARE in the McLean-Great Falls-Pimmit Hills area, ECHO (Ecumenical Community for Helping Others) in the Springfield area, and the Falls Church Community Service Council.

One reason for ACCA's success, say its volunteers, is that there is little bureaucracy and the group is apolitical. Because so many churches are involved, the group has considerable resources.

"ACCA does things that one church couldn't do by itself. One church could not run the furniture warehouse," Gleiter said.

But perhaps the biggest reason for its success is that its volunteers are truly committed to serving the community.

"I know it sounds corny, but I love working with people and figuring out how to make their lives better," Ruffing said. "It just feels right. It just is what we should be doing."