OVER THANKSGIVING the paper was full of stories about people in this community who performed large acts of generosity. They saw to it that the hungry were fed -- feasted, really. Some went to considerable trouble and expense to do so. Some made genuine sacrifices. All these stories were inspiring, though none was surprising. People who work in newspaper offices know that whenever the hardship of individuals or groups of people is publicized, the switchboard lights up in a blaze of calls from readers -- vast numbers of readers -- wanting to know where and how they can help, requesting an address where they can send a sum of money to aid some victim. The capacity to be moved and the desire to help are always there.

The trouble is that this is seasonal and occasioal. Little children, the elderly, the disabled who live in institutions are glutted with goodies at Christmas time and worn out with festivities and attention. It sometimes seems as though every civic group, high-school class and military unit in the area has come to see them and offer them Christmas gifts and entertainment. But like the Thanksgiving Day attention we pay to the homeless, this, too, is an annual thing.

We have enormous respect for those people we have read about who for years have been making a costly annual Christmas or Thanksgiving effort to provide for the needy and the forgotten -- and who do it regularly and in a big way. But it does seem to us that the others -- the folks who are just seized by sudden holiday guilt, compassion and generosity and who randomly decide to do something for the less fortunate that day -- could do much more to help. They could look into the opportunities for volunteer service on a sustained, out-of-season basis. They could be the people who provide the elp when it's most needed and most gratefully accepted -- that is, long after the last crumbs of brandy-soaked fruitcake have vanished, in the lonely post-holiday season when the public has turned its attention elsewhere.

If you are someone who would like to engage in such activities and who doesn't quite know how or where to begin, there are plenty of organizations just dying to tell you. If you have a clear idea of the kind of thing you can do best and would most like to do, apply directly to an organization in your community such as a hospital, mental health center, family service agency or hot line. Otherwise, you can call the volunteer clearinghouses or bureaus in the District (638-2664) or the counties: Prince George's (779- 9444), Montgomery (279-1666), Fairfax (691-3460), Alexandria (836-2176), Arlington (558-2654), Howard (531-5029) or Charles (645-5868). For especially interesting volunteer opportunities, you should also check Anne's Reader Exchange every Sunday in this newspaper and Bob Levey's Bulletin Board on the last Friday of each month.

A word of warning. Before you decide that you'd like to help people in need, do a little self-assessment. Are you prepared to make a regular commitment and stick to it? Making sure that volunteers have useful things to do -- and are doing them correctly -- takes a good deal of supervision. Some agencies that need help the most can't take on volunteers because they don't have enough full- time people to organize them. Almost all the charitable organizations in this area are deeply grateful for volunteer help -- but only if they can count on it.