Rae Grad stops at the end of a long discussion on the infant mortality rate in Washington and around the world, groping for a way to make her frustration with the pace of progress more graphic.

"If 40,000 spotted owls were to die tomorrow," she said, "think what would happen. It would make the cover of Time and Newsweek, newspaper headlines, full play on McNeil-Lehrer. Yet 40,000 babies worldwide (including 25,000 12 months or younger) die every day. Day after day after day," she said.

Grad, head of the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality, had been talking about the tragic cases she sees as a part-time volunteer nurse at the Congress Heights Clinic in Southeast.

Women such as:

A 17-year-old who is pregnant for the fourth time. Her first baby, born when she was 13, has cerebral palsy.

A 21-year-old who has been trying since she was three months pregnant to get accepted in WIC, the federally funded Women, Infant and Children feeding program. She applied in July, but the first available appointment is the end of September, so she has been deprived of nutritious and supplemental foods for three important months of her pregnancy.

A mother who is trying to get Medicaid, but is becoming discouraged by the weeks-long qualifying process and the bureaucratic hurdles.

"So the system refuses to give easy Medicaid coverage," says Grad, "puts up barriers for WIC, refuses to give easy access to information and care for pregnant women, and their babies are born with deformities, high risk."

The obvious result is enormous costs: babies in intensive care at a cost of millions of dollars, which the government has to pay or pass on to paying patients.

An infant born in Washington today is less likely to survive its first birthday than a baby born in Cuba, Costa Rica or Jamaica. In 1988, 244 babies died in Washington, an infant mortality rate higher than in any of the 50 states.

"It is a sad picture," says Grad, "because we have the answer at our fingertips."

And so Rae Grad is joining what is expected to be millions of other people around the world, who are tired of the needless suffering, dying and expense, at a candlelight vigil Sunday to call attention to those and other issues affecting children. Washington's vigil begins with a rally at 4 p.m. at the Washington Monument grounds.

Part of Child Survival Week, the vigil is a prelude to the World Summit for Children, where heads of state of U.N.-member states will gather Sept. 29-30 at the United Nations for meetings on issues affecting children. President Bush will attend.

"This vigil puts the president on notice that we are watching, waiting, hopeful" says Grad. "It is an opportunity for him to be not only the 'education president,' but also the president of children, who not only want to be educated, but to be productive citizens. Here is an opportunity for the president to talk about domestic programs. We want him to feel that support so that he can stand up before the United Nations and say some meaningful things."

What Grad means is that without a healthy start in life, a child is seriously hampered. All later efforts to educate, house and employ are wanting in light of that basic right: to be born with all one's potential intact.

Yet 40 percent of Washington's pregnant women did not receive prenatal care in the critical first three months of pregnancy in 1988. At D.C. General and Greater Southeast Community hospitals, 18 percent to 32 percent of pregnant women admit to drug use, particularly crack cocaine. Moreover, between 1988 and 1989, the number of District children born HIV-positive increased by 50 percent. Until pregnant women and children get access to health care, ensuring the maximum physical and mental functioning of children, educational revisions such as extending the school day will not produce the desired results.

Meanwhile, the Child Welfare League of America points out that while problems of the young are increasing, federal spending on them is decreasing. "Billions of dollars for children's services are being lost," says Executive Director David S. Liederman. The league, along with many organizations, celebrities and activists are participating in Sunday's vigil.

Recent polls show that Americans are growing increasingly alienated from government. Within that alienation exists an opportunity for individuals to find strength and mobilize. One way to take action is to join this candlelight vigil for children.

I hope that tens of thousands of Washingtonians will go to the rally and hold a candle at twilight Sunday. That light, multiplied by the millions around the world, can demonstrate the power of illumination and send a message that we care about children, and want the leaders of our country and the world to match their rhetoric with action.