THERE ARE in Bogota, Colombia, several thousand boys, aged about 5 to 15, who live anarchic lives. They are called gamines , or street waifs. The word, as we are familiar with it from the French, suggests a cheerful, ingratiating impudence. The gamines of Bogota have this quality. They are fiercely independent and scornful of those among them who compromise with society. Their wit is sardonic, savage when it is turned against the pretensions of the state -- as when, during a recent grand parade celebrating the nation's progress, a gamin entered the line of march, dropped his pants, and defecated. His comrades cheered.

But the gamines are not altogether winsome in their mischief, like actors in a Latin version of "Oliver!" They do steal, and they work for various Fagins. They also kill from time to time. They are involved in the ubiquitous drug rackets. Many are diseased. Dressed in rags, they often sleep in parks, stacked upon one another for warmth in the cold Colombian nights. By the time a gamin is 10, he has probably experienced sex (they are often so used by their Fagins), violence, the thrill of stealing, capture, punishment, escape. He has been sick with hunger, and he has used his wits to survive.

"He is free," Father Javier said. "Free of a school that bored him, free of a family that beat him. He breathes free air. Stolen goods are free! Sex is free. It is wonderful."

Javier de Nicolo is an Italian-born priest, a member of the Salesian order. In the late 1960s he was chaplain in the Carcel de Menores , the youth jail in Bogota. In 1970, with some 20 gamines released on his personal recognizance, he organized a small, experimental learning community in a borrowed house. Soon they moved to a larger building in a slum. It was there that I saw the transformation, indeed the resurrection, of several hundred boys. So at least it seemed, though the long process was compressed into a single day, as plant growth is accelerated in a nature film.

JAVIER MET us in the vast lobby of our hotel, a place of nondescript affluence surrounded by beggars. His dress surprised me. He wore a pinstriped suit cut in the European fashion, and a foulard tie. His black-gray hair was slicked back. Thick-lensed glasses sat on his prominent nose. His manner was casual and direct.

In his Chevy van we drove through narrow streets, headed for "Bosconia" -- named for Saint John Bosco, the 19th century Italian priest who founded the Salesian order. Like Javier he was a teacher of homeless boys. On the sidewalk near the gates of Bosconia, gamines lay about. A young girl strutted before them. "Already a whore," Javier said.

We drove through the gates and were at once surrounded by a dozen shouting, pushing boys. Each insisted on shaking hands. I remembered being warned that gamines will strip the watch off a driver's wrist as he waits in traffic, and before proceeding I put mine in my pocket. It was unnecessary. Later I felt it there, like a sliver of Yankee prudence.

Before us was a courtyard, tile-surfaced, and lined off for games. The number of boys rapidly multiplied, swarming about us, shouting "Bienvenidos! Bienvenidos a nuestra casa !" I was given a basketball.I shot and missed. Yells of encouragement. Try again. A near-basket this time. I would have stayed until I sank one, but Javier called. Speaking with the boys as he walked, he led us through a building and out into another courtyard.

Structurally this was like the first. But against the side of the building, two boys lay in the sun, their sweaters pulled over their heads to block the light. They stirred and came stumbling to their feet. Their eyes were large and seemed without focus. They were drunk from smelling gasoline fumes. They spoke urgently, incoherently. Near them in this courtyard were other wild-looking boys. Their features seemed pushed out of symmetry, the eyes capriciously placed, noses skinned, lips cracked. Their clothes were torn and soiled.

Javier showed us a low building in which there was a line of shower stalls. A door led to the street outside, to the slums of Bogota. When a gamin wished to do so, he entered Bosconia through that door.

He was given a shower and a meal, medical attention if needed, and allowed to stay in this second courtyard during the day. He was required to leave in the evening. If he continued to return over time, and if he asked to join the community, he was received into it. Pedir -- to ask -- is the first step.

We walked back into the building that separated the two courtyards. Upstairs, we saw a spotless kitchen and dining hall. In the library each book stood apart from the others -- worn with use, cared for. A chess game was under way down the hall, and there was a crowd around the TV.

The dormitory rooms, housing 12 or 15 boys, were immaculate. You could have bounced a quarter off the tight blankets on the cots. Next to these were homemade bureaus, in each of them a folded shirt, a faded pair of shorts, a toothbrush. Javier picked up a pillow, revealing an old, clean pair of pajamas. "That's the hardest part, teaching them to wear these," he smiled.

I felt a wave of grief and joy pass over me. What had it required of that boy to come from the shower room by the street, give up his marvelous, dreadful freedom, and wish to fold his pajamas carefully beneath his pillow? Comprometerse -- to commit oneself -- is the second step.

We lunched in Javier's office, over-looking the first courtyard. I became absorbed in watching the boys at play there. They were rough and teasing, as they are everywhere. But they were also generous. Everyone had his shot at the basket. And suddenly I became aware of their faces. They were open and cheerful, composed, confident.

These boys were gamines , still free to leave during the weekends and return to the street (most preferred not to do so), but they had been transformed. They were the wild boys in the second courtyard months later. The mark of those anarchic days of stealing, starving, half-freezing, fear and bravado had passed from their faces. They had learned to respect themselves because this priest, his associates, and the other boys respected them.

There were techniques, of course. In the streets, the gamines operated in groups of 8 or 10, called galladas . An account of Bosconia reads:

"Because the gamin searches for identity and solidarity through a group, the program uses the institution of the gallada . Youngsters affiliate in groups, and have mutual responsibilities and obligations. The social order is determined and maintained by peers.

"Also, since the gamines are used to getting and handling money of their own in the streets, Bosconia has an internal system of currency called Florentines, which are earned in a variety of ways, and are legal tender for such things as clothes and entertainment.

"Formal education takes place in open classrooms, giving emphasis to the individual interests and abilities of each boy. Learning builds from the street wisdom that many possess far beyond their years.

"Beyond reading, artithmetic, and vocational skills, there is a transcending theme of critical reflection -- a fostering of inquiry and reflection on personal concerns, on the process in which they are involved, and on larger societal questions.

"The majority of decisions are made by the participants.

"The director encourages the boys' active involvement at all levels in the development of the program."

What this account does not suggest is the particularity of concern for each boy that one feels in Bosconia. Group involvement, and the fostering and acceptance of mutual responsiblities, are critically important to its success. But the authority that Javier asserts and the care he shows for each gamin are the cement that holds this fortress in the slums together.

After lunch, we piled back into the van. The boys gathered around and pounded on the top, cheerfully hollering "Vuelva !" (Come back!). Outside the gates, gamines who had not yet asked, and perhaps never would, stood watching the scene.

JAVIER SAID we were on our way "to the secondstage." The first stage, in the slums, was that of autoeducation -- self-education. For the most part, the self-educators were very young. As they became teenagers, they were given the opportunity to move into a community in which they took the main share of responsiblity. This was the stage of autogobierno -- self-government.

Fifteen miles from the slums, we were in farm country. Behind us, under heavy clouds and ringed by mountains, Bogota glowed in a shaft of pearl-gray sunlight. We passed through a village, its cantina raucous with radio music. Rounding a curve, we saw "La Florida."

I cannot remember what I expected to see -- something like an orphanage, I suppose, its severe red walls lined with perpetual winter shadows. But La Florida was open, architecturally graceful, even elegant.

Boys came from every direction. They were teenagers, at first slightly more reserved than the youngsters in Bosconia. But as they showed us about, their enthusiasm grew until a dozen were speaking at once, eager toexplain the use of each building -- the bank and credit union which they operated, the office of the mayor and council (all boys), classrooms, library, workshops, dormitories with cantilevered roofs and bureaus which now, in the flowering of their youth, held an array of possessions, clothes, toilet articles, books. Four hundred live in La Florida, and for the most part they run it themselves.

I watched Javier as he walked among them. Boy after boy sought his ear, speaking earnestly or through laughter. He was their leader, who had helped them realize their own worth. He wore the kind of clothes they aspired to wear. He was smart about the world of affairs, as they were street-smart. He had no hidden agenda; everything he wished them to experience was set forth on a huge chart in the mayor's offce. First step Pedir "; second step Comprometerse "; and so on. And they understood this process of their lives. The young mayor, 18 years old, described each step as a journeyman would describe his apprenticeship in a trade.

A special event was prepared for us. Excitedly the boys moved us across a courtyard, into a hall where 100 more were waiting. On a bandstand sat 10 players with trumpets, trombones, saxaphones, clarinets and drums. We took our seats. First there was a march, then the second movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 39.

They played it well, better than any high school band I had ever heard play serious music. The comparison struck me. The young men on the bandstand, dressed handsomely in sweaters and slacks, could have been students in an American prep-school. They were good-natured, proud, ready to mock one another. Once they stole, begged, slept in parks, knew sex before their time, perhaps took a life. They were gamines . Now with luck and more training, they would be ready for mature productive lives.

JAVIER'S CHART shows the next steps: Dar/Recibir and Recibir/Dar : To give/to receive, and the reverse. Taking these steps, one learns to live in community. After that comes Crear/Producir -- to create, to produce. Autogobierno , self-government in La Florida, is followed by Autogestion , self-help.

This is the critical moment for Javier's gamines . In La Florida, they have learned something of the manual trades. They have been exposed to a basic scholastic education. Cunning to begin with, they have learned to share, to live helpfully with others. They have been influenced by Javier de Nicolo, no small gift for a life.

But unemployment is high in Bogota. Millions of rural people have poured into the city during the last three decades, spurred in part by laviolencia , the malady of killing and robbery that once ravaged the countryside. The politicians who govern Colombia will not be so amenable to the will of ex-gamines as was the council of La Florida. It will require something more than a spiritual transformation if they are to live in dignity in modern Bogota.

Javier secured financing for Bosconia and La Florida from a variety of sources: the Colombian government, the district of Bogota and foreign foundations. Now heseeks to establish, chiefly with private funds and with the help of the Inter-American Foundation, "Ciudad Industrial Don Bosco."

At the moment, his foundation owns four large workeshops in an industrial park on the edge of the capital. He is building houses on the 10 surrounding acres. Graduates of La Florida would live there, receive on-the-job training, earn and save money, and gain experience in managing small enterprises. Machine tool operations, carpentry, metal working, prefabrication and construction work would be available. There would be classroom study in marketing, production techniques, accounting, and -- as one would expect of Javier -- ethics and human relations.

As in La Florida, the student workers of Ciudad Industrial Don Bosco will govern themselves. Ultimately, Javier believes, the place will be self-financing.

I THINK THERE are lessons to be learned from this Colombian example, lessons which apply not only to foreign assistance, but to some apparently intractable conditions here in America.

It seems quite unlikely that government-run programs, however well-intentioned, can accomplish results such as Javier's. Though the society of Bosconia and Flaorida is certainly egalitarian, its achievement is based on a special concern, rooted in religious and humanistic values, for each boy. Public programs are rarely capable of such distinctions.

What government can do, in more cases, is learn to wait. Wait until people decide what they want to do, and commit themselves to doing it. Wait until they can show that the benefits of a project, as well as the making of decisions about it, will be broadly distributed. Wait until they've done all that can be done without outside help. Then provide it.

It need scarcely be said that the world is not oversupplied with Javier de Nicolos. But there are men and women of insight, dedication, capacity for love and willingness to take responsibility, whom public funds should support in work that serves deep public needs.

Geneticists may one day tell us that personalities are firmly fixed at birth, and social scientists may draw an age line beyond which they consider change virtually foreclosed, but we have examples such as Bosconia that teach us otherwise. One need not endorse such pabulum as "There's no such thing as a bad boy." Obviously there is. But many miscreant youths (by no means all) can berescued from upspeakable beginnings, and from futures of harm, misery and dependency. An American public that has grown wary of social spending should know that, for it is our future, as well as that of such youths, that is at stake.