SUCCESS GENERALLY goes unnoticed, in the profoundly difficult work of helping children and families in trouble. Success consists of the anguish that is avoided, and the disasters that don't happen. There are no statistics to measure those things. But truth isn't all in the statistics, and there have been real triumphs in this city -- as the example of FLOC demonstrates.

Fifteen years ago, it was the custom here in Washington to keep all the homeless children -- hundreds of them -- in desolate barracks at a place called Junior Village. This practice was damaging to the children and a disgrace to the city. But public welfare administrators said that it was impossible to find foster homes for so many children. Finally, in 1965, people from several of the city's churches formed an organization called FLOC -- For Love of Children -- and got to work. They lobbied skillfully, but, even more important, they began setting up foster homes. That's an enormously complicated process of finding houses, training foster parents and raising money. Over the following years, through much arduous labor by many private citizens, many welfare groups and a few enlightened politicians, the number of children at Junior Village was worked down to zero, and the institution folded up.

FLOC kept going. Today it runs 21 foster homes, and a school for children whose disabilities keep them out of the public schools. It runs an advocacy center, carrying on lobbying and litigation in behalf of enlightened public welfare policy. It has an operation called "Hope and a Home," which tries to provide both of those things to families in dire need of them.

There's a FLOC wilderness school in a woods near Harper's Ferry, where three dozen boys live in tents all year. They have built their own water system, and they chop their own wood. They divide the chores and settle their disputes among themselves -- with the help of a few counselors. FLOC has found the money for six canoes. One of the next projects there will be a log cabin library. FLOC is now starting a similar wilderness school for girls.

The city's social distress sometimes seems to be on a scale overwhelming any possibility that anyone can do anything about it. One lesson offered by FLOC -- and the other similar organizations, for FLOC is not alone -- is that people who contribute time and energy often do more than they ever expected. It's not an easy kind of work, for there are a lot of disappointments mixed in with the rewards. It takes great moral stamina, and endless devotion. But, as FLOC has repeatedly shown over these 15 years, the successes can be extraordinary.