And so we begin a journey. For children.

During the next nine weeks, this column will be devoted almost entirely to raising money for Children's Hospital National Medical Center. Because I cover this community, and care about this community, I have volunteered with pleasure to conduct the Children's fund drive in this space.

This will be the 33rd consecutive holiday season in which The Washington Post has conducted a drive for Children's Hospital. The reason is the same this year as it has been in the past. Children's has always prided itself on treating any patient from anywhere in our community, regardless of ability to pay. It has always run a deficit because of that policy. The community has helped cover that deficit. The Post has helped the community do the covering.

In earlier years, Bill Gold and Scott Chase helped collect a total of about $2 million for Children's. The money has always gone to meet an urgent need -- not to paint the head surgeon's office silver, but for patient care and nothing but patient care.

The dollars that you give this year will be used equally well. For children.

Over the next nine weeks, this column will print the names of those who give money, regardless of how much. There'll be names of companies. Names of clubs. Names of groups at the office. Names of gardening clubs and church groups and public schools and scout troops.

But not individual names. If I printed the names of all individual donors, I wouldn't have room to print anything else.

Of course, donations from individuals are not only welcomed, they're fervently desired. But individual thank-yous published in the column just aren't going to be possible.

Nor would sleep, or time to eat three meals a day, if I hadn't latched onto some able assistance. He goes by the name of Rob Graettinger.

Rob is a news aide in The Post's financial news department who has been detailed to help me with the Children's drive. He is literally a gentleman and a scholar -- since he sings classical music with the Choral Arts Society of Washingtonand holds a master's degree in history.

In addition, we have discovered that we share the same hair stylist (Matt Ward) and root for the same football team (the Chicago Bears). So it's only fitting that we share an office and a fund-raising drive.

Either Rob or I will open and read every letter you send. Both of us will be reporting on life at the hospital throughout the coming weeks. And both of us will be making appearances around town before groups that have collected funds for Children's.

But around Dec. 22, the whole ball of wax will be his. That's the day Jane and I are expecting either an Alex or an Emily.

I've explained to Rob that one day around that date, he can expect a call at 4 o'clock in the morning (aren't babies always born at 4 o'clock in the morning?). A sleepy voice dimly resembling mine will mumble either "It's a boy" or "It's a girl." And then I will disappear onto Daddy Duty for two weeks or so.

I'm sure Rob will do an excellent job in my absence. But neither of us is going to do anything but twiddle our thumbs if you don't contribute.

So here comes the first pitch.

Please give.

Give generously.

Give now.

The need has never been greater.

I know you've heard that last phrase before. So have I. And if you're like me, you've glared at it with the same disbelief you normally reserve for breakfast cereals that are "the most nutritious ever" or cars that are "the best-designed in history."

But this once, it's true. Children's Hospital has never before faced a year in which high inflation and the prospect of huge slashes in federal funds have landed on its doorstep at once.

In fiscal year 1980, which ended in June of last year, Children's ran up an operating loss of $2.5 million, despite record donations. The figures for fiscal 1981 still are being tallied, but they are not expected to be cheerier, and they may be far gloomier. And imagine the bottom line if federal funds are cut, or withdrawn entirely, in the current fiscal year.

So your dollars will make a great difference. For those who have given to Children's during past holiday seasons, here's hoping the habit is still alive, and that you can squeeze out a few dollars over and above your "usual." For those who may be new to the Washington area, or who are considering giving for the first time, let me say the magic words: your contribution is tax deductible.

Rob and I will be glad to accept any donation in any form. But we urge you to give by check or money order rather than in cash.

The reason: Cash is not only clumsy, it is pilferable. They haven't yet invented an adjective that would do justice to someone who would steal from a sick child. Still, let's not tempt fate.

Please send your donations to:

Bob Levey, The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street NW., Washington, D.C., 20071.

And please send them soon. As I noted on Friday, the Children's campaign has been started about two weeks earlier this year, largely so that more dollars can arrive at Children's sooner. That's another way of saying that every little bit counts. Please send your little bit -- or, better, your big bit -- today.

In the remainder of this week, I will explore the history of the Children's campaign, and of the hospital itself. I will provide some facts and figures about the hospital, and the care it provides. I'll print a "catch-up" list of those who have given to the hospital since the 1980-81 campaign ended in February.

But I can't close this first 1981-2 installment without a personal note.

I suppose everyone prepares for first-time parenthood in his or her own way. My way is to lie in bed and compose the answers I plan to give in response to Childhood Questions.

If our kid asks me out of the blue what it means to be an American, I'm all set. Where does snow come from? I've had that one memorized for weeks.

I think I'm even ready for Daddy-where-do-babies-come-from? Heaven knows, I'd better be.

But in one way, the question I am best prepared to hear is: "What if I get sick?"

I can answer: "We take you to the doctor. And if you are really sick, we take you to the hospital. Children's Hospital."

I hope I never have to make good on that answer, of course. But if I do, it's a great comfort to me, and to parents throughout the community, that a first-class Children's Hospital exists here -- serving every child in our midst, regardless of need, race or religion.

A hospital whose only concern is making our children better.

A hospital that has done the job since 1870, and wants to continue.

Please give.

For children.