A child's carefree laughter can change, in a matter of seconds, to a cry for help.

Accidents, trauma and illness can strike at any time - and without regard for a child's age, race, religion, or his family's financial ability to provide for his future.Expenses for life-support systems, technological services, specialized care and transportation all add up. And many families are unable to pay.

Through Primary Children's Medical Center's "Pennies by the Inch" campaign for charitable care, there's hope for the hopeless, and healing for the critically ill.

This year, needy children are asking Utahns to "Reach for the Stars" to make this campaign the most successful ever.

Raising pennies, dimes and dollars for charitable care, the door-to-door campaign runs Jan. 28 through Feb. 11 in the Western states. Families are asked to contribute generously for each inch of height of all family members.

KSL Radiothon will begin Jan. 30 at 6 p.m. and run through Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. It's anticipated that this year's radiothon will pass the $1 million mark for the total amount raised since 1977.

Honorary `Pennies' chairmen, Merlin Olsen and his wife Susan, are joined this year by Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, who's known both for reaching for the stars and helping children.

The senator-astronaut annually sponsors the "Senator's Ski Cup" at Park City to raise money for charity care. The 1989 cup raised more than $100,000.

The money is put to good use.

In 1988, more than 1,700 children received some $2.9 million in charitable care for hospital expenses. Many received life-saving care, with patients coming from Utah (5,220), Idaho (471), Wyoming (258), Montana (127), Nevada (116) and other Western states and foreign countries.

For some, emergency care is the answer and they go on to live healthy lives. But for others, continuing problems make them vulnerable and long-term and/or repeated hospitalization is necessary.

In 1988, more than $2.9 million in contributed funds were used for care of needy children at Primary Children's, and "Pennies" donations provided $1.2 million. But hospital officials say because the need for charity care continues to grow, this year's goal is $1.3 million - plus.

"Physicians donate their valuable time for charity care," said Utah's campaign chairwoman Myrl W. Hamilton. And no `Pennies' funds will be used for the construction of the new Primary Children's Hospital. All the money will go directly to charity care.