At Martha's Table, where homeless people are cared for, I asked a group of children why they spent Saturday mornings making peanut butter sandwiches to feed the hungry.

I had read Robert Coles's "The Spiritual Life of Children," in which hundreds of young people were interviewed about what they thought was important in life. Coles said he had been enriched by the experience.

I soon found out why.

"We see peanut butter at home so much we take it for granted," said Tim Winkler, 13, of Danville, Va. "But to think that some people only get to eat the peanut butter sandwich that I make for them has changed my perspective on life."

The youngster was almost breathless with enthusiasm. His innocent outrage at the plight of the poor made for a clarity of purpose that was nothing short of noble.

"I hope and pray that the less fortunate will one day get some of the things that they need," said Latrell Washington, 13, a District resident. Relentlessly, she spread peanut butter on slices of bread, fitted them together and bagged the sandwiches that would be shipped out on the lunch time food wagons.

"We'll feed as many as we can," she declared.

These were ordinary kids, the kind you find in shopping malls. As Newsweek magazine noted recently, they are part of a generation of teenagers who are being subjected to "adult-strength stresses" with more access than ever to fast cars, fast drugs, easy sex -- "a bewildering array of options, many with devastating outcomes," said Beatrix Hamburg, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Yet, the children I met yesterday had forgone all of that to help the poor.

This was consistent with Coles's discoveries. Deep inside all of us -- especially our children -- he says, is a spiritual awareness, a consciousness and a curiosity that need only be tapped and nurtured to reveal humanity at its best.

Mike Garrett understood.

"We spent a large part of last year discussing what is a Christian's responsibility in a hurting world," said Garrett, associate pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Danville. "We studied the stories about what Jesus requires of us. Then the children decided that they wanted to know what it was really like to help somebody."

That brought them to Martha's Table.

"It feels great," said Ginger Newman, 15, a church member. "A feeling of being selfish has been replaced by a sense of doing good works."

"My mother used to tell me that I was not thankful enough," said Tiffani Russell, 13, a District resident. "Now that I help feed the poor, she is pleased."

Tiffani is member of a Girl Scout troop based at Atonement Episcopal Church in Washington. Each week, the girls volunteer at nursing homes and soup kitchens to promote within themselves a sense of leadership and moral values.

"It is only when we lose ourselves by helping others do we truly find ourselves," said Barbara Blackshear, the troop leader.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," said Hilary Park, 15, of Danville. "If I were in a bad situation, I would want someone to help me."

Veronica Parke, executive vice president of Martha's Table, said volunteers frequently share their feelings about being volunteers.

"They often speak of having their spirits uplifted," Parke said. "Children, particularly, enjoy doing things that test their values. After helping prepare and serve food, they can then say with certainty, 'Yes, giving is good.' "

This reaffirmation is crucial in the quest for spiritual development. "The facts and figures that we feed our children will not satisfy their need to live with their values," Parke said. "Our children are starving for experiences that give them a chance to grow spiritually."

Coles concurs.

"The entire range of children's mental life can and does connect with their religious and spiritual thinking," he wrote. "Their desires, their ambitions, their hopes and also their worries, their fears, their moments of deep and terrible despair -- all connect in idiosyncratic ways, sometimes with Bible stories or with religiously sanctioned notions of right and wrong, or with rituals such as prayer or meditation."

In this time of great suffering, there are many opportunities to be of service, to give of oneself. As the children demonstrated at Martha's Table, that is how spiritual life is sustained.