NEW YORK (AP) _ Ingeborg Hardorp was 14 and starving when her family received a food- stuffed cardboard box in bombed-out Hamburg. Kathy O'Sullivan was an 8- year-old in New York when she helped her grandmother fill boxes for people like Ingeborg Hardorp.

To Hardorp, struggling in post-World War II Germany, the plain brown box marked with the black letters CARE was the gift of life. To O'Sullivan, who helped her grandmother assemble CARE packages, they were a gift of love.

''We probably would have starved if it had not been for CARE,'' says Hardorp, now 59 and living in Stony Brook, N.Y.

Today the term ''care package'' is used generically. College students receive them regularly; so do relatives separated by miles. They are boxes chock full of goodies and love.

But behind the word is the organization that started it all when the first CARE package arrived in Europe on May 11, 1946.

Forty-five years later, the relief agency whose original mission was to feed ''the living victims of war,'' is still hard at work.

A hundred million CARE packages have been distributed, most recently to places like the Soviet Union, besieged by food shortages; to Jordan, during the Persian Gulf War; to Turkey, for Kurds fleeing Sadaam Hussein.

From its beginnings as a volunteer organization, CARE has grown into an international, non-profit organization with a $400 million annual budget and thousands of workers in 39 countries.

Born in the aftermath of World War II, CARE - the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe - was the brainchild of New York banker Paul French and actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

''I traveled a lot through Europe during my six years in the service and I saw the effects of war first hand,'' Fairbanks said in a recent interview. ''I remember seeing families living inside niches of bombed walls in Rome, children without food or shelter in Germany.''

When he came home, Fairbanks expressed his concerns to longtime friend French and CARE was conceived.

''My job was to be the front man'' and galvanize the public's support, said the 82-year-old Fairbanks, star of such film classics as ''The Prisoner of Zenda'' and ''Gunga Din.''

The outpouring of support for those so-recently deemed ''the enemy'' was immediate and overwhelming.

By the end of the 1940s, CARE had shipped 7 million packages to Europe. Among the more famous recipients was German Chancellor Helmut Kohl who, as a teen-ager, received his first suit in a CARE package. He recently recalled it was so big ''it would probably fit me today.''

O'Sullivan fondly recalls her days as a soldier in CARE's volunteer army, drafted into duty by her grandmother, Kathleen Smyth.

''My grandmother was a great one for roping people into things,'' O'Sullivan said.

She recalled watching in awe as her grandmother badgered friends for donations, carried wares home in bulging string bags and twice a month doled goods into 12 boxes lined up in the basement of the Smyths' Manhattan home.

''I remember helping her and wondering why she wouldn't give me any of the chocolate,'' said O'Sullivan, who lives on Long Island and is food editor for a weekly newspaper.

Though CARE required basic foodstuffs like oats and sugar, O'Sullivan said her grandmother often ''added her own imaginative items like needles and thread.''

The boxing complete, her grandmother would then take the packages to the local post office, one at a time. Or she would enlist some ''lady friends,'' and together they would march in a line down the street, O'Sullivan said.

Hardorp's memories are on the receiving end.

Caught in the British bombing blitz of Hamburg that claimed 85,000 lives in three days, Hardorp lost her father and her home.

''When the air raid sirens went off that night we had only three minutes warning. My mother grabbed a suitcase, but it was the wrong one; the only thing in it was three forks and three silver spoons. We lost everything.''

Hardorp, her mother and three orphaned teen-aged boys moved in with another family. They were receiving a small amount of rations when they heard about CARE.

Hardorp clearly remembers the day the package arrived.

''It was just this ordinary brown box but to me it was the most beautiful sight in the world,'' Hardorp said. Inside there were oat flakes, powdered milk, canned fish, sugar, dried peas, a bar of chocolate, a dress for Hardorp that was too big and shoes that were too small.

''Each day we'd each get one teaspoon of oat flakes in powdered milk and we'd mix it and put it in our mouths and keep it there a long, long time. We stretched that package like you could not believe.''

Today, in addition to disaster relief, CARE also provides essential services to Third World nations; it plants trees in Mali to battle soil erosion, constructs wells in Ecuador and provides job training in Lima.

''The container is not always a brown box but the motivation behind CARE is identical,'' said CARE President Philip Johnston.