Lisa Parkins wanted a new beginning. At age 24, she was unmarried, a mother of two children, and a welfare recipient who felt that she could not possibly get a job that would provide the salary and health benefits she needed to raise a family.

Life, in her words, was ugly and miserable. One day last October, after months of frustration, she decided that "the begging and the asking" would have to end.

She rode a bus from her subsidized two-bedroom apartment in Bethesda across Montgomery County to a county office building in Wheaton, where she asked a social worker for help getting off welfare. Three weeks and two cross-county bus rides later, Parkins got what she hoped for: a chance.

She could enroll in a relatively new Montgomery County program aimed at making the dependent -- those who have been on welfare rolls for at least two years -- become self-sufficient. Known as the Family Independence Project, the 20-month-old program is an example of the type of new welfare reform effort that the House approved last week and the Senate is considering in hopes of breaking the welfare dependency cycle.

"I'm fed up," Parkins said about her life, days after she was finally accepted in the program. "There's a lot of things I want and I know I can do. And I have two kids. I want better for them."

Parkins is one of 82 persons enrolled in the family project. The program promises to counsel participants, help pay school costs, fulfill day care needs and -- unlike any other welfare effort in the region -- provide family health benefits for a time. Health benefits are considered a crucial part of the program, officials said, because many welfare recipients are reluctant to take -- or stay at -- entry-level jobs that lack health insurance.

But the project makes demands on clients. It focuses intently on each person's commitment to hard work, developing self-esteem and, ultimately, the will to survive.

Parkins, a small woman with an engaging smile, has agreed to have her progress in trying to get off welfare described in stories to be published during the next several months. Her effort, triumphs and failures, will be chronicled as one example of how social programs address or do not address the needs of those who say they want a new start.

The theory behind the Family Independence Project, which is patterned after welfare reform efforts in Massachusetts and California, is that welfare recipients need to be guided to escape the vicious circle of needing, pleading and receiving. Toward that end, the theory goes, welfare recipients are best helped by providing them with social services geared toward obtaining meaningful employment and by then making certain that nothing deters them from staying employed.

Congress is pushing in that direction, debating a measure that would require states to set up large-scale education, job training and work programs designed to make welfare recipients self-sufficient and tax-paying citizens.

In Montgomery County, where the program is funded wholly through local money at a cost of $397,000 annually, it does not provide direct services. Instead, it acts as a broker, steering welfare recipients who often do not even realize what benefits -- job training funds, transportation vouchers, day care possibilities -- are already available.

From her first day, Parkins was told straightforwardly what was expected: She would have to attend classes on parenting, nutrition and money management. She needed career counseling. She had to learn to balance her family responsibilities with the pursuit of job opportunities. She needed to bolster her office skills through General Equivalency Diploma English and typing courses, for which the family project would pay.

On average, it takes participants 18 months to reach the day when they can call representatives from the Aid for Families with Dependent Children office and tell them that their money is no longer needed, counselors said. So far, only three Family Independence Project clients have done so. Twenty-nine others have full-time jobs that should soon lead to that day, the counselors said.

The annual salaries of the jobs range from $8,000 to $18,000, with women encouraged to take white- or blue-collar jobs -- particularly office work or computer repair -- that could lead to higher salaries and include benefits, counselors said.

When the program was outlined to her, Parkins needed to hear no more. She was ready.

Parkins said she had never expected to be on welfare -- or certainly not for so long. To her, the past two years are a mark of shame and failure.

Parkins was reared in Rockville by her mother, a Costa Rican immigrant who worked as a secretary and who separated from Lisa's father during her infancy. "I was the middle child in my family and always had to be pushed. I was the kid who couldn't be told anything," Lisa Parkins said. "Then everything turned out not as I thought they would."

Parkins found out she was pregnant the first time when she was 17, the year she was to graduate from Rockville High School. Her mother was so shocked at the pregnancy that, for a while, the two did not talk, Parkins said.

"I just couldn't be around her," Parkins said. "I stayed with my brother for a while, and then I went into a home for girls in Georgetown. When I had the baby, I rented out a room in Rockville for three months. My mother finally caught up with me then. She said, 'I'll help you with anything, as long as you go to school. Come home.' "

"My mother pushed me . . . . She's the one who pushed me to get out of the house and go to school, day school and night school, until I got that diploma."

But even with her high school degree, Parkins had troubles. Two years later, she became pregnant again. Today, she is the mother of two daughters, Karleeta, 6, and Maya, 4. When the subject of marriage comes up, she is blunt, if not self-protective: "I don't dwell on marriage or having any type of companion."

Parkins said she was not brought up to rely on government aid. Her mother received public assistance only because of a handicap, Parkins said. Her family ethic was one of work -- even at an early age, she said.

In high school, Parkins had a part-time job at the county library in Rockville. After she received her degree -- and with her mother helping as baby sitter -- she worked at Sears in Montgomery Mall for a year. In 1984, she began a job at Electronic Data Systems Corp. as a computer clerk. Talking about that job now, in her apartment off Old Georgetown Road, Parkins becomes animated. The job, filing data, made her "feel like somebody."

"They promoted me after a couple weeks. They saw I was willing to try. They taught me how to use the computer. They were trying to train me." But then the company's major contract ended, and she lost her job. It was August 1985, and Parkins had a decision to make.

"I could have gotten $300 a week at the most on unemployment . . . . I just figured I might as well go on social services. I'd get the medical assistance card and food stamps. The check was nothing -- I could make more than that -- but I told my mom I'd have to make the sacrifice and go on something like welfare because of the medical needs," she said.

That concern was brought home for Parkins last week when her daughter, Maya, was hospitalized for appendicitis. It is a concern shared by many of the family project's clients, 98 percent of whom are young mothers with children. For that reason, the program promises health benefits to participants who obtain jobs that do not provide family health coverage.

The project provides a health maintenance organization for the first year of their jobs, when health coverage often is not provided by employers. HMO coverage is paid for through participants' contributions, county funds and donations from the Philip Graham Foundation.

That innovation has caught the attention of social service officials who are watching the Family Independence Project closely to see if this pilot program can be repeated -- with modifications -- around the state. The program is too new to judge its success, they said.

"It's exciting, it's promising, but we need to get much more information to know if this is the way the state of Maryland should go," said Ruth Massinga, director of the state's Department of Human Resources.

The two months that Parkins estimated she would be on welfare stretched into two years before she learned about the family project from a counselor in the county's Housing Opportunities Commission. By that time, Parkins said, she was desperate for a change.

"I was panicked" over being stuck on welfare, she said. "There was a point I was feeling real ugly about myself, real bad. Sometimes now I still have those feelings. I guess that's normal. But I worry."

The first two weeks in the program, Parkins participated in workshops designed to bolster her sense of worth and improve simple management skills, such as finding the best day care. She listened to lectures on balancing her budget, establishing credit, finding a family doctor.

"At first I thought it was dumb that I had to go through all those classes," Parkins recalled. "But each class, it's been all right. I've learned something."

She was assigned a case manager whose duties include counseling, helping coordinate day care, supplying transportation vouchers and, in short, teaching the program participant how to take advantage of available services. Kathy Williams, a project case manager since its inception, remembered Parkins as a person who did not give up -- even when she was told by county bureaucrats to wait for another interview.

"It takes some time to get accepted, and there's a reason for that," Williams said. "We want to give them time to figure out if this is what they want, if this is something they are ready to do . . . . We want them to show commitment early on."

Such a personal commitment is something that Parkins concedes she has only recently reached, after having allowed herself to slide into welfare dependency.

When she first went on welfare, Parkins said, "I convinced my mother that I wouldn't sit back and be lazy . . . . But then I got lazy. Well, maybe not so {much} lazy as realizing I needed to get education. I couldn't go out there and make any money. I was miserable, sitting there, waiting for some luck, or hope, or something to come through."

Now, Parkins is enrolled in the English and typing courses. She rides a bus three times a week from Bethesda to Rockville for the training.

"Right now, I want to go to school for word processing. I can't wait for that. I know I'm ready for this because I've changed a lot," Parkins said. "I hate buses. But I will get on any bus anywhere for anything they have scheduled me."