MOST PEOPLE act on (or at least entertain) a

charitable impulse from time to time. But not many people are willing to take on day-to-day, year- to-year responsibility for helping others. Curiously, it is often people whose own share in the material goods of this world is relatively modest who choose to make such long-term commitments.

Two such extraordinary people in this city are Jennie and John Bailey. Twenty-six years ago, Mrs. Bailey, having raised two children of her own, decided that she ought to do something to help other children who didn't have the kind of warm and loving home that the Baileys could provide. Since then the Baileys have opened their home and their affections to a long procession of children and adults who had no one else to care for them.

Some of the 50 or so children whom the Baileys have sheltered were referred to them by a local welfare agency. Others were brought by desperate parents who had heard that the Baileys would provide good care for children when their own parents could not.

Raising a large number of children from troubled backgrounds is a tough job. But the Baileys didn't stop with the "easy" cases. Several of the Baileys' charges--including three adults and one teen-ager who currently live with them--have serious physical handicaps or psychological problems. The Baileys have raised some of these handicapped children to adulthood.

Mr. Bailey is a maintenance engineer at the Washington Urban League. Without the modest financial help that the welfare department's foster- child program provides, the Baileys could not afford to do their good work. But the Baileys provide something that money alone can't buy. That is the security, discipline and love that children need.

The Baileys' exceptional contribution was recognized this week by a national organization for handicapped children, which selected them as its "Parents of the Year." That's well-earned recognition. But the real reward for the Baileys' good deeds comes from somewhere else. In Mrs. Bailey's words, "I get the most pleasure by helping others."