They don't think of themselves as engaging in a political act -- just responding to a need that must be met. But they have focused on one of the strains resulting from social change and are quietly doing more to ease it than many a politician could.

"Hello, this is PhoneFriend. . . . Well, hi, Tonetta, how are you today? . . . Your mama's not home? Well, what do you suppose you could do to pass the time? Could you color in your coloring book? . . . You don't feel like doing that today? Is there something you'd like to talk about? . . . How was school?"

The two volunteers taking calls at PhoneFriend, D.C.'s new hotline for "latchkey children" who are home alone after school, share a small, square room with a couple of desks and file cabinets and a Kaypro. Through a window they watch the sky darken, adding one more fear to the anxieties that are moving their small interlocutors, aged five to 12, to dial the phone. From 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays, the ringing is constant.

"We honestly thought the phone wouldn't ring for the first month," says J. Channing Wickham, executive director of the D.C. Hotline, which launched PhoneFriend. "A couple of TV crews came by on Sept. 30" -- the official opening date -- "hoping to film the first call. Only problem was, the word had gotten out somehow and we'd gotten 70 calls the week before."

"We've obviously tapped into something," he adds.

Something, indeed. PhoneFriend's two lines can handle about 60 calls in the four-hour day, but the kids keep calling as long as the phones are manned, and the answering machine fills up with their voices at all hours. And that's only the response from 10 D.C. public elementary schools, the ones where the hotline staff had distributed flyers by mid-October. They had 110 more to go.

The outpouring has taught the volunteers more than they may have wanted to know about family life in the big city. They thought the District would be a good place for the service because it's "a highly professional place" and has the country's highest proportion of working mothers. But they didn't realize that the vast majority of calls would be from kids in extremely poor or single-parent households; kids home alone in dangerous neighborhoods, whose parents, with the best intentions, have instilled in them lurid fears about what could happen if they aren't careful; kids who, like one 11-year-old girl who called last week, are responsible for giving three or four younger siblings dinner, packing their lunches and getting them off to school in the morning.

Volunteers knew, too, that their experience would be very different from those of the only similar services in the area, the helplines for kids in largely suburban and rural Montgomery and Prince George's counties. (The only other urban line is the 24-hour Kids' Line near Chicago.) The neighboring hotlines get long idle periods and problems like wet clothes and escaped pets. The only pet crisis so far at PhoneFriend has been a call from a terrified 10-year-old who was afraid his parents' uncaged parrot was going to bite him on the nose. (Full-time volunteer Julie Estes helped him shut the bird in another room.)

But the vast majority of D.C. callers are just bored, or lonely, or think they hear funny noises from upstairs. One surprise has been how many of them call even though they aren't alone in the house. "They're alone in the sense that no one really pays attention to them," says the director of volunteers, Heller An Shapiro. The volunteers cheerfully give that attention, encouraging kids to talk about their schools and their families and suggesting ways they can fill the time -- such as phoning a classmate, playing a game with a sibling or watching TV. "We want to help them develop their own resources," explains Shapiro, "so they won't need so much to call again." A large sign on the wall warns, "Always Stay Within Parental Guidelines" -- that is, don't advise a child to go outside and play if his parents have told him to stay inside with the door locked.

Some calls are more serious. On a recent afternoon, the voice of volunteer Allyson Alpert making routine conversation on one line ("Okay, so you're going to go eat dinner now? You can call back again if you want to, okay?") mingled with more serious tones as her partner, Dot, tried to help a boy of about 8 stop beating up his little sister, for whom he regularly babysat. "Do the fights get worse when you hit back?" she probed gently, and then, "Do you think that's a good reason to get hit? . . . Does that ever draw blood, when you hit each other?" and finally, "Do you suppose you could talk to your mom about it?" Dot, who didn't want to give her last name, had a rough afternoon; the next caller was a sad and lethargic-sounding little girl who suddenly declared in mid-conversation, "My sister died last week."

In rare cases PhoneFriend can do more than talk. The D.C. Hotline has resources to deal with emergencies such as abuse and potential suicide, and volunteers can alert police quickly if the "strange noise" should happen to be a real prowler. PhoneFriend also has ties to the D.C. school board, so if a child reports persistent problems in school, "there's a loop back," accord- ing to school board spokesman Janice Cromer. Sometimes parents call too, asking if they can put their kids on; many are apparently delighted with this alternative to "Oh, go and watch TV." But that same afternoon brought what volunteers insist is their first exception. One mother, whose lonely 6-year-old had called twice that day, arrived home in mid-call and grilled Alpert fiercely on who she was and why her son had been talking to her. Told about PhoneFriend, she was relieved but defensive: "Listen, I tell you, I'm not a bad mother. I just left him for a moment -- I care about my kids and I wouldn't neglect them!"

The fear and the ambivalence vividly illustrate the shame many parents still feel about not being able to raise their kids "traditionally," even though the situation is frequently beyond their control. Parents don't like to admit they leave their kids alone, which is one reason PhoneFriend had trouble estimating its potential audience. But single-parent families are now 25 percent of the population, and the proportion is likely to rise; dual-career families and families too poor to manage unless both parents work make up a hefty percentage more. To help such families' life styles to become even just a bit more livable -- to develop a net of subtle, small-scale aids comparable to those that have always supported the traditional family -- is as compassionate as it is crucial.