The average age at Powhatan Nursing Home in Falls Church is 86 and the oldest resident is 103. All need medical care and are under 24-hour nursing supervision. Almost all are in wheelchairs.

Nevertheless, many residents this spring bowled, held raffles, made ceramics, cooked gourmet dinners, baked cakes and sold the food to raise the $4,000 they donated June 27 to Shelter House, a 36-bed facility near Seven Corners that offers emergency aid and counseling to homeless families.

"We've never known a nursing home to get this involved," said Michelle Palmer, program coordinator at Shelter House. "For a group like this, $4,000 is an extraordinary contribution. There's more energy here than at the shelter."

Nationwide, the tradition of nursing home charity is more than a decade old, according to a spokeswoman for the American Health Care Association. But it is only in recent years that local charities have benefited.

In 1977, the association, which represents 10,000 nursing homes, developed a program called "Rock and Roll Jamboree" to raise money for health charities and to keep residents involved in the outside world.

Residents would rock in their rocking chairs and roll in their wheelchairs, with family members and others pledging funds for the participants' effort. "We were trying to encourage them to remain active, vital participants in the commmunity," said association spokeswoman Linda Keegan.

The program grew, and by 1982, roughly 3,500 nursing homes participated, contributing more than $7.5 million to the American Heart Association.

But activities broadened over the years to raffles and sales, volleyball games and even Jello-eating contests. So, too, did the beneficiaries, with residents now more likely to give to local causes, according to Keegan.

"It's what you want to do, whenever you want to do it, whoever for," said Barbara Bodeman, public relations director for the Virginia Health Care Association.

Bodeman said about 50 of Virginia's 225 nursing homes now participate in some type of "Jamboree fund-raiser" with Powhatan one of the biggest money-raisers. Nursing homes in the state often give to local causes, with fire and rescue squads now a favorite charity, she said.

Charity starts early in the year at Powhatan, when representatives of several nonprofit groups meet with the 24-member resident council to plead their causes. Last year the council, a group of residents that advises on running the home, voted to provide nursing scholarships to a state organization. But this year, the nearby shelter for the homeless, also in Fairfax County, won hands down.

"They came and persuaded us," said Mary Ann Lucas, 84, treasurer of the resident council. "I believe you should give to your own." Lucas added that she knows about homeless issues from the Powhatan residents' weekly news discussions on Monday afternoons.

"The big thing is, the residents choose," said Kris Kemprecos, an activities assistant at the 160-bed home. "They think about it, hard, for several weeks."

Fund-raising goes on all spring, with residents selling valentines, doughnuts and bagels and Mother's Day corsages. There's a yard sale of items donated by residents and their families and two sales of ceramic work crafted by the residents themselves. "The biggest moneymaker is the yard sale," Lucas said. "When we have an affair, you can't get in the room."

Events culminate during one marathon week in April, when the residents stage a dinner and auction and a resident bowl-a-thon. Family members and friends pledge money for each plastic pin bowled down, and the nursing home staff holds its bowl-a-thon at a nearby bowling alley.

Each month, the fund-raising is front-page news in Powhatan's newsletter, The Pow Wow, which features accounts of the latest moneymaking activities and an update on the total raised so far.

The payoff came this year in June, with a presentation ceremony to officers of Shelter House. Lucas said she made a successful motion to give away all but $50 of the money raised. "Our kitty is bare," she said.

"We're dead broke," added Elizabeth Coulon, also 84, and president of the resident council.

In earlier years, Powhatan residents focused their fund-raising efforts on health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, Alzheimer's Association and Arthritis Foundation, whose primary beneficiaries are the elderly.

Several years ago, Betty Leith, the home's director of nursing, said she proposed that residents give money to the Falls Church Cerebral Palsy Association. "A cerebral palsy child was brought in, and we thought, 'What a neat idea,' to benefit the other end of the {age} spectrum," Leith said.

Other area nursing homes are also activist. In Southeast Washington, The Center for the Aging's 180-bed Health Care Institute raises money for Martha's Table, a city soup kitchen, and for border babies deserted by their parents at local hospitals, said Karen Vecchione, a recreational therapist at the institute. The residents also hold fund-raisers to fill Thanksgiving food baskets for needy families, Vecchione said.

In Maryland, many nursing homes still raise funds for health charities, according to Sherry Smith, director of education for the Maryland Health Care Association.

At the Randolph Hills Nursing Home in Wheaton, for example, residents raised more than $2,000 for the American Heart Association this year. Activities included a talent show, bake sale, auction and bingo games. "Some that have difficulty walking get up and walk for Heart," said activities director Johana Walburn.

In September, Randolph Hills holds a carnival to raise money for local causes such as the Red Cross and rescue squad. A "very active" resident council parcels out the funds, Walburn said.

"Age doesn't change people," said Michelle Palmer of Shelter House. "If they were active and involved, they'll stay involved."