THIS YEAR, WHEN Easter and Passover coincide, we think about the redemptive message these holidays convey to children.

As winter gives way to spring and the earth turns green again, chocolate eggs represent the sweetness of hope that should grace the lives of all youngsters.Passover's unleavened bread, termed matzo, or the "bread of affliction," teaches that when freedom beckons, there may not be time for one's bread to rise. Even a cracker can sustain us in the desert when we dream of a promised land. If the future is rich in opportunity, a minimum portion goes a long way.

The minimum portion that can save us, the bread of hope for every wilderness, begins with love. Studies show that children who know at least one caring adult are 52 percent less likely to miss school, 45 percent less likely to use illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to drink alcohol and significantly less likely to commit acts of violence.

That's why an ongoing relationship with a caring adult is the first of five fundamental resources every child needs to achieve a happy, healthy and productive life. The other resources are: safe places and structured activities in non-school hours; a healthy start; a marketable skill through effective education; and an opportunity to give back through community service.

I was asked to consider why communities of faith should contribute to this endeavor on behalf of 15 million American youngsters at risk of growing up uneducated, addicted, surrounded by violence and liable to become parents while still children themselves.

The question is not why you should come to us when, in fact, we have come to you. Charity is a concept religion gave the world, and half of all volunteer work is still contributed through faith based communities. Nearly a quarter of the money spent by American congregations goes to social services, which amounts to $20 billion each year.

Freedom of opportunity, the American promise, was grounded in the Puritan belief that all children are equal in the eyes of God. Since the Lord is merciful and just, people are expected to imitate these qualities by sharing their gifts. At a time when the stock market is up and the economy is booming, we must work to ensure that all God's children partake of our country's bounty.

What religion does not teach its followers to feed the hungry and clothe the needy? Sacred texts instruct humanity to care for the widow and orphan. Scripture recognizes that youth-oriented societies, like child-oriented families, are the most promising.

One year ago, on April 28, in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Presidents Clinton, Bush, Carter and Ford and first lady Nancy Reagan met with governors, mayors and delegations from around the country in support of America's at-risk children. The Presidents' Summit for America's Future was a bipartisan effort to bring together business, local communities and individual volunteers to do what government can't accomplish by itself. It was at the Philadelphia summit, too, that the organization I chair was formed to carry out this mission, America's Promise - The Alliance for Youth.

Since that time, local summits have been held in states and communities across the nation. We dedicated ourselves to helping at least 2 million children by the year 2000. Corporations like United Airlines, Sears Roebuck and Walt Disney have become "commitment makers." Lens Crafters and Blue Cross/Blue Shield, for example, promised to guarantee "healthy starts" through eye exams, glasses, and other medical measures. The HEB Co. in Texas will be adopting 1,500 schools by the end of 1998 and 2,000 come the millennium, forming the largest public-private partnership in the state.

The United Methodist Church of Charleston, W.Va., has made a substantial commitment, and my own parish - St. John's in Mc-Lean, Va. - is bringing tutors to Macfarland Middle School in Washington, D.C. Local and regional areas have been identifying needs that industries can fund and volunteers can execute.

Research indicates that, in general, the biggest giving comes from many small donations rather than foundations or corporate philanthropy. Above all, we need ordinary people to coach team sports, help teach reading, contribute to scholarships or donate facilities where clubs can meet. For children in danger of joining gangs, going on welfare and costing our society billions of dollars down the road, prevention is the wise alternative to building more prisons. In addition to being cost-effective, helping young people is the right thing to do.

The symbol of America's Promise is a little red wagon. The color of a fire engine, this vehicle of rescue carries a child's treasures. It also can cart heavy loads. Many youngsters today carry heavy burdens indeed, and America's Promise aims to lighten the load.

With a bit of faith in our children and our country, we can help kids get where they're going. If you grip the handle, we can get them up the hill. All we really need is a hand.