Washington — FOR those who despair of headlines about unemployment, drug abuse, and crises in the Middle East and Central America, consider the volunteers. At least 1 out of 2 American adults, in an individual or group way, volunteers a good part of his or her time to cope with crises and unmet needs both at home and abroad.
These citizen volunteers are proving that the individual counts. And their numbers appear to be growing.
The week of May 6-12 was National Volunteers' Week, and May 7 was volunteers' day at the White House.
At a White House luncheon, President Reagan presented 19 presidential volunteer action awards for 1984. The recipients were a labor union, two corporations, and 16 individuals, groups, and national organizations. All of them, in Reagan's view, embody an American frontier spirit of self-reliance and private initiative.
Some of the award winners have worked as unsung heroes or heroines for many years. Robert Macauley, a New Canaan, Conn., businessman who established the Americares Foundation in 1979 to provide relief supplies abroad, got started during the Vietnam war. In 1968, Mr. Macauley set up a fund for orphans in Saigon known as the Shoeshine Boys' Foundation.
The tall Mr. Macauley, who feels uneasy about publicity, did not linger at the White House after the awardsluncheon. Of volunteer work, he says, ''the joy is in doing it without the recognition.''
Macauley insisted that the presidential award not be given to him but to his organization, thus honoring the many volunteers who have contributed to its work. In an interview, Macauley said in the many replies he has received to his appeals for help, he detects a ''groundswell'' of interest in voluntarism.
Thanks to its unpaid volunteers, Americares operates with an overhead of only 0.5 percent. Contributed space, telephones, and supplies help to keep costs down.
Americares has shipped clothing and medical supplies to Poland, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and El Salvador. Last Christmas, the organization sent 5 million chocolate-covered nutrition bars and some 2 million disposable diapers to Poland.
Many of the volunteers who received awards or citations derive strength, as Bob Macauley does, from a deep religious commitment.
Some of those who received awards came to voluntarism only after facing difficult challenges:
* Bill and Pat Barton helped to form a Naples, Fla., parents association after they discovered that the young people who were taking drugs in their community included their own children. The association's purpose was to educate the community and create an environment that would encourage drug-free activities. The umbrella organization the Bartons helped to establish, the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, now involves more than 4,000 parent groups.
* Glenn Williams of Seattle stepped out of Alcatraz 23 years ago after serving nearly 11 years for a bank robbery. He began volunteering with an organization that helps to rehabilitate released felons. In 1971, Mr. Williams organized the nonprofit Attica Inc., purchased a bus, and over the next nine years drove thousands of women and children to visit family members in penal institutions. In 1981, Williams founded Teen Intercept, which teaches youth about the dangers of drug use.
* While serving with the US Army's First Infantry Division in Vietnam 16 years ago, Tom Rader was severely wounded in a mortar attack. Retired from the Army on permanent disability, Mr. Rader did not let artificial limbs slow him down. As a Merced County volunteer probation officer, he supervises and counsels as many as 20 adult and juvenile probationers at a time. Three years ago, Rader developed a program whereby juvenile offenders may be assigned work instead of paying fines or receiving sentences.
* Chris Stout says she was ''a rebellious teen-ager and a rebellious adult'' before turning to Christianity and volunteer service. After moving with her husband and four young children to a farming community near Everett, Wash., Mrs. Stout saw that enormous amounts of food were going to waste in nearby fields after the harvest. To supplement her family's limited resources, she began a gleaning program and taught herself to can, preserve, and dry fruits and vegetables. She encouraged other needy families to glean and taught them to preserve food. She began collecting and distributing used clothing and opened a thrift shop. Today, her nonprofit Sparrow Ministries involves more than 150 participants.
''I believe that people should be less dependent on others and more dependent on themselves,'' says Mrs. Stout, a one-time welfare recipient. ''That's what our nation is all about.''
Robert Macauley, the Connecticut businessman, agrees. He said he learned his lesson in April 1975, when he was trying to arrange an emergency airlift to the United States of Vietnamese orphans who had survived an airplane crash near Saigon. He turned to the American military and was told that they might be able to do the job in 10 or 11 days. Macauley chartered a Pan American 747 and had it in Saigon within nine hours, even before he knew how he would pay for the flight.
''After the babylift, I learned that if you're going to do something, do it yourself,'' said the businessman.
One of the striking things about the volunteers who received awards at the White House this year is the variety of interests and impulses they represent. In addition to those already mentioned are volunteers working with Boy Scouts, laid-off employees, Vietnam veterans, and dropout children. The 1.4 million members of the Knights of Columbus work through more than 8,000 chapters across the United States.
In San Francisco, employees of Levi Strauss & Co. form community teams that do everything from tutoring children to repairing leaky roofs.
In Minnesota, state-revenue shortages led volunteers to develop a two-year project to meet community needs through local partnerships. In Twentynine Palms, Calif., a loss of eligibility for state funds led citizens to launch a campaign to finance a community college.
But volunteering is not all fund raising. Elizabeth Cooper Terwilliger, a pioneer in environmental education in Marin County, Calif., has developed playgrounds and hiking, canoeing, and bicycling trips for schoolchildren. Her volunteers work out of three vans equipped as nature labs. The nonprofit Terwilliger Foundation's programs now reach 75,000 children in the Bay Area.
It was Mrs. Terwilliger who launched a demonstration of how birds fly during President Reagan's awards ceremony for volunteers on May 7.
But the loudest applause of all during the ceremony went to the wounded Vietnam veteran, Tom Rader, who, with the help of his four artificial limbs, walked to the stage to shake hands with President Reagan. As one participant described it, there were few dry eyes in the room.
The award recipients were chosen from more than 2,500 nominations. VOLUNTEER, the National Center for Citizen Involvement, a private nonprofit organization, and ACTION, the federal agency for voluntary service, cosponsored the awards program.
In the fall of last year, the Gallup Organization conducted a national survey as a public service for VOLUNTEER. The pollsters used a broad definition of volunteering: ''working in some way to help others for no monetary pay.''
The Gallup survey found that 55 percent of American adults volunteered during the previous year. This marked an increase over the estimated 52 percent volunteering in 1981. The total monetary value of American volunteer services came to more than $64 billion a year.