The young woman knocked on Laura Mae Goldsmith's door and asked for her help. She didn't have her rent money and was about to be evicted from Barry Farms, the 432-unit housing project that skirts Anacostia in Southeast Washington.

Goldsmith talked to the managers. The woman got a reprieve.

The incident happened a few years ago, but is indicative of what the 80-year-old community volunteer has been doing for nearly 62 years.

Goldsmith's neighbors love her and she knows it.

"They call me Mama," she said.

It's been eight years since Goldsmith stepped down as president of the Barry Farms Residents Council and retired as the "mayor of Barry Farms," but residents in trouble still come to her home on Eaton Road SE, where she has lived since 1942.

"When things got to the point where she couldn't do anything about it, she'd call me. People didn't have heat or air-conditioning, she'd call and say, 'Darling, I didn't want to call you, but I need your help,' " said D.C. Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8).

Until arthritis made walking a chore, Goldsmith would march into residents' homes to confirm their complaints about no heat or broken refrigerators in the units. Barry Farms was built 45 years ago on farm land bought from Juliana and David Barry, and is squeezed onto six acres bounded by I-295, the B&O railroad tracks and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

Goldsmith now checks complaints by phone and gets her exercise another way.

"I walk out the front, around the house and in the back -- on good days," she said with a chuckle during an interview at her home. "But I still help."

In times of few heroes, this is the woman dozens of residents have turned to with complaints about housing, drugs and police brutality. Whatever the problem, they believed she had the solution.

When Rolark needed residents to testify at a council hearing on a proposed $21 million renovation of Barry Farms, Goldsmith got them there. The renovation began last month, after years of delays.

Rolark and her husband Calvin also credit Goldsmith with helping to improve relations between Barry Farms residents and 7th District police officers, this despite the death of Goldsmith's son Kenneth in 1975 during a struggle with officers at a Southeast restaurant. A grand jury cleared the three officers, but a D.C. Superior Court jury later held Officer Gerald Tone and the District responsible for her son's death and awarded his daughter Monique $127,000.

"She was concerned about police brutality during that period. That was the name of the game," said Calvin Rolark, a lawyer and chairman of the 7th District police advisory council.

"I called her the mayor of Barry Farms because she . . . had experienced problems dealing with every aspect . . . and she was a role model for other individuals who live in Barry Farms," he said.

The worn units of Barry Farms have not withstood weather and generations of children as well as Goldsmith has.

At Goldsmith's corner unit, her warmth keeps the inside homey, but she hasn't been able to govern the outside. What once was described as "childproof grass" has been replaced by scraps of carpet in her yard. The paint is peeling, the foundation is worn.

But Goldsmith thrives. Her black hair has turned gray, but she wears it in a long ponytail much as she did as a young girl. Her crack-a-whip voice, clear and true, belies its decades of use. She can still make her grandchildren mind without raising a hand.

She was raised in Greenville, S.C., and admits she wasn't always a nice child. She was very mature and didn't much like her peers.

"I was very selfish and independent. I'm still independent.

"Everybody loved me. I don't know why. I was hateful . . . but everybody loved me."

She said her father changed her attitude.

"If I asked my brother to do something, I'd have to pay him. So my father used to all the time say, 'Somebody's got to do for nothing.' So I decided I'd be the one to do for nothing."

She married her home-town sweetheart, Fred, who soon got a job with the federal government and moved to Washington. She later joined him. He died 10 years ago.

During World War II, Goldsmith became a manager for messengers, black teen-agers trained to carry information in the community and make trips to the doctor when needed.

She soon became involved in the Barry Farms residents council and served as its president.

Souvenirs of service line the wood-paneled walls of her home. In a corner sit stacks of scrapbooks, filled with compliments, memories, thank-yous and pictures of her with former Mayor Walter Washington and with the Rolarks.

Goldsmith has worked not only to improve the projects but also to save the lives of children.

She is on the board of Unfoldment Inc., a community-based antidrug group that serves children.

"She's always there. She's always willing . . . . She's an indefatigable worker. I don't know if Mrs. Goldsmith has ever said no to anybody who needed help," said Baker Morten, founder and president of the 10-year-old group that serves 5,000 children in the area from its headquarters at 2605 Wade Rd. SE.

Goldsmith's philosophy is simple.

"I don't be bothered with drugs. I tell them all the time, 'Don't bring no drugs down this way' . . . so they obey," Goldsmith said of the dozens of young people she has lectured.

"I just tell them it's hurting them and if they don't want to live their life, give it to me and I'll live it for them because I just want to live on and live on."

Goldsmith's persuasive power is enhanced by the fact that the young people don't want to make her mad. Life is better when you have Mrs. Goldsmith on your side, they say.

"She's like a grandmother to me," said Bernadette Johnson, 20, who has lived next door to Goldsmith for 18 years. "When my father left my mother, she helped pay the rent, buy food.

"When we were out playing, she'd call us in -- all the kids in -- and feed us. And on weekends, she'd let us come over to stay."

Goldsmith said she considers all the children her children and all the residents her folk. Always has. Always will.

"I couldn't count them {the number of children I've helped}," she said. "I've had kids come to me for carfare for school. I tell them, 'As long as you stay in school, I'll budget myself to help.' "