In 1993, I received a tip that three children were living with an old man in an abandoned building in Southeast Washington. I went to the address and found Robert Hopkins, 63, aged beyond his years by diabetes, holed up in squalor with his son, Robert Jr., 6, and daughters, Rhonda, 5, and Shanay, 4.

Hopkins told me back then that he had sought help from the D.C. housing agency but was told that more than 15,000 families were on a waiting list for public housing. No more applications were being accepted. So he took what he could find.

Lorraine Flipping, then a 51-year-old widow, read about the Hopkinses' plight and asked her daughter, a D.C. police officer, to find them and bring them to her home in Capitol Heights. The daughter's detective work paid off, and a follow-up column about the Hopkins family rescue ended on a hopeful, happy note.

Now, more than a decade has passed. Flipping looks with pride at how well the youngsters are doing. Robert is 19 and graduated from high school this month. He is planning to attend the University of the District of Columbia in the fall. Rhonda, 18, recently graduated from high school, too, and also has been accepted by UDC. Shanay, 16, is a junior in high school and hopes to follow in her siblings' footsteps.

But that sense of pride is bittersweet, as I discovered during a recent visit with Flipping. For in 1996, three years after the children came to live with her, the natural mother showed up and demanded their return. Although Flipping maintains contact with the Hopkins children and offers assistance, most of the time she must content herself with looking on from afar.

"When they came to take the kids, it was the most difficult parting," she recalled.

Shanay, who was 7, took it the hardest. Flipping recalled: "She was crying, 'Please don't make me go.' And I was crying, 'I'm not making you go; I have no choice.' They had to pry her away from me, and she almost tore my clothes off because she was holding on so tight. I had begun to love those kids, and when they get to calling you 'Mom,' it's hard to let go."

Hopkins died in 1996 of renal failure. He'd never been able to care for the children and had asked Flipping to raise them. Hopkins and his wife, Jacqueline, who was 20 years younger, had separated when Shanay was 2 months old. Hopkins maintained that Jacqueline had abandoned the family. I mentioned that assertion to Jacqueline Hopkins in a telephone interview with her Friday. Her only comment: "You can write anything you want. Just say the children are doing fine."

Flipping, now 63, had saved the children from a nightmarish existence. Had she waited for someone else to act, they almost certainly would have stayed longer in a building where vagrants gathered to argue and fight over drugs and where they set fires to cook and keep warm. The Hopkins family might not have survived another night.

And yet, if this extraordinary act of mercy has brought uncommon joy to her life, it also has caused the greatest pain she has ever known.

After returning home from her job with the D.C. government each day, Flipping would devote herself to the children as if they were her own. She would make their meals, help with homework and, on weekends, take them on outings around the city.

"The first thing I did when they came to stay with me was to put the girls in the bathtub," Flipping recalled. "I said, 'You all sit down.' They looked at me like I was crazy. They said, 'Sit?' I said yes. And they said, 'In the water?' That's when I realized they'd never taken a bath before. But they ended up loving it."

Flipping spent thousands of dollars on the children -- for clothes, toys and school supplies. Instead of spending money on her house, on fresh paint and new carpet, she made sure the children got the medical care they needed.

What Flipping did was extraordinary. But it took awhile even for her to find a satisfactory explanation of her willing sacrifice. "I used to look up and wonder why in the world do I bite off these things that are so hard to chew and even harder to swallow?"

The answer was revealed to her one day during home Bible study.

Bowing her head in reverence the other day, she began to paraphrase what she had learned from Isaiah, Chapter 58: "The true fast that God calls us to is not to deny the body, but to take in the homeless, feed the hungry and clothe the naked."

And when she looked up again, a beatific smile was on her face.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

Go to www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2005/03/24/LI2005032401706.html to read Milloy's previous columns about the Hopkins family. Join him at 2 p.m. Monday at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2005/06/10/DI2005061001437.html for an online discussion about his work.

Saving three children brought Lorraine Flipping joy and pain.