Once more the curtain rises. Once more, it's time to help children whose families are too poor to provide that help. Once more, it's time to raise funds for Children's Hospital.

The Children's fund-raising campaign has been a holiday staple of this column for 39 years. For the last seven of those 39, it has been my privilege to be the chief whipcracker and beancounter. And thanks to you readers, the Children's campaigns have been as successful as any such campaigns anywhere in the country.

In the first 32 years, under my predecessor, Bill Gold, you readers contributed more than $4 million to the hospital. Since I took over the pilot's chair in 1981, you've given an additional $2.1 million. It has been a wonderful performance by a wonderful bunch of Washingtonians.

But now we need to perform again.

Children's Hospital is not one of those causes that waxes and wanes. It needs money -- and consumes money -- every day of every year. The reason is the uncertainty of its constituency.

You never know when a kid is going to break his leg or burn her finger. So Children's must be there, every minute, to handle emergencies.

But the hospital must also handle the tougher cases -- kids with AIDS, kids with cancer, kids who are born with severe heart ailments, kids who have rare and complicated lung diseases.

These children stay in the hospital for a long time. Their bills are astronomical. But Children's has always treated the child first and worried about the bill second.

Still, the money to cover the bills must come from somewhere. That somewhere is the free care fund.

The fund does just what its name implies. It picks up the tab for children whose families don't have health insurance, or sufficient savings. Approximately one Children's patient in four depends wholly or partly on the free care fund.

Every cent you readers contribute to our Children's Hospital campaign goes to the free care fund. None of it is diverted for fancy curtains, conventions in Acapulco or further fund-raising. The money all goes for medicine, staff salaries and the other basics of first-class care.

When you write a check to another charity, you sometimes get a twinge of worry about whether the money will all go where you want it to go. But writing a check to Children's is pleasurably twingeless. When you help the hospital, you get 100 pennies worth of bang for every buck.

But that's not the only reason I like to say that Children's Hospital is the most deserving charity I know. Try this for a good reason:

Children's Hospital dispenses excellent care, regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, family income or place of residence. And it has done so since 1870.

Many hospitals can say several of those things. Many charities can say several of those things. But only Children's Hospital can say all of those things.

Still, a lot of people think that Children's has a limitless storehouse of dollars somewhere in its basement, into which it can dip whenever the going gets extra tough. This is a myth that springs from the hospital's full name: Children's Hospital National Medical Center.

People hear the word "national" and they think Uncle Sam's zillions must stand behind Children's. So they don't see why Levey makes such a big deal each year about giving.

The reason, of course, is that Children's is a private institution. It receives Medicaid reimbursement money, like every hospital. But neither the federal nor the District government provides a cent for operations. That's why your dollars are so important.

As always, I look forward to receiving gifts from individuals over the next eight weeks. Gifts from individuals have always been the backbone of the Children's campaign, and they always will be.

My rotten old heart never fails to thump a little harder when I get a $10 check from someone with squiggly handwriting. The accompanying note often says that the check writer is 90 years old or more, on a fixed income, but still young enough to care, and to contribute. How can you beat that for genuine humanity?

However, my highest hopes for 1987-88 are aimed at groups. We logged more than 850 group donations a year ago -- the largest total ever. But the potential in this area is vast, and vastly untapped.

If you're an Office Oscar or an Office Olivia, why not put a basket by the coffee pot, and collect spare change for sick kids?

If you belong to a club, why not kick in a few bucks from the treasury to help kids who can use it?

If your church is looking for a worthy Christmas project, look no further.

If you regularly bend an elbow at a certain watering hole, why not ask your fellow elbow-benders to contribute?

Remember, a group does not have to be federally chartered or Good Housekeeping-sealed to make out a check. A group is you and your three best buddies. Or it's you and four people in your van pool.

We would especially like to reach groups that have never contributed before. So in every federal agency, every bowling league, every third-grade classroom, every singles bar, won't someone volunteer to be Children's Hospital Pointperson? I'd sure appreciate it, and so would dozens of needy kids.

As always, I offer this deal to groups: Any group contribution made through me (and not sent directly to the hospital) will be acknowledged right here in Bob Levey's Washington. The size of the gift doesn't matter. All groups will be thanked right here, in sparkling bold-face type.

Speaking of sparkling, it's time to introduce my Children's associate for 1987-88. She's Deborah Schwartz, who brings not only sparkle to the job, but also four years of experience as a news aide in our sports department. You will be reading Debbie's guest columns often between now and mid-January. I think you'll like them.

To the ground rules:

Please, please, a thousand times please, do not send cash through the mail. I know a lot of you are impulse givers, who read a column and stuff five bucks into an envelope before you forget. But I also know that many times, I receive envelopes that don't contain the fiver any more. Checks and money orders only, if you would.

All donors will receive an acknowledgement post card, as soon as we can get it to you. And we promise to deposit your checks before the next Ice Age (that has been a problem at times in the past). Anyone who wonders whether his or her check has reached me should give me a call at 334-7276.

All gifts are deductible on federal and state tax returns. Your canceled check is the only receipt you will need to show an auditor, if you should ever have the joyous experience of appearing before one. Any further questions about taxes or tax consequences should be directed to the Children's development office, 939-4522.

One more reminder: "Crock" and "The Middletons" will be suspended for eight weeks, starting today, to make room for my expanded Children's columns. Both comic strips will return on Monday, Jan. 25.

That's it for housekeeping. Let's get down to dollarhunting. Please help us keep alive a Washington tradition. Please send a holiday gift to a place where it will do lots of good. Please help us make the 1987-88 Children's Hospital campaign a record-breaker.

TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:

Make a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.