The girls were walking home from church, talking about what teachers they might get for ninth grade and what boys they hoped would be in their classes when school starts next week.

"What are we doing about the car pool this year?" the shorter girl asked."Oh, my mother says she won't drive you this year," the other girl replied, matter-of-factly. "She goes, `I don't like her mother.' "

The shorter girl said she didn't understand. So the other girl tried to explain, repeating what she had heard her mother say.

"You know," she said. "Because your mother's divorced."A friend told me this story. A friend who now has a daughter without a car pool. That means my friend will have to make other arrangements. It means she will have to work later every day so she can drive her daughter to school herself.

But it's not the inconvenience that upsets her. She just can't believe that in 1991 people would feel that way about a single parent.

When I told Tina Lopez about the incident, she wasn't surprised. For the past five years, Lopez has been a champion of single parents and a chronicler of their struggles.

Last year she invented the Outstanding Single Mother and Outstanding Single Father of the Year awards, which are sort of like the annual Mother of the Year award, only maybe more realistic.

You may be familiar with the Mother of Year award. It's generally given to a woman with a life that looks perfect, complete with husband and five or six kids. When her life isn't perfect, the glitches are generally heroic. Widowhood. A handicapped child. Acts of God rather than the fallout of human blun-ders.

Lopez's awards, on the other hand, go to men and women whose lives are full of snags and repairs. Women who work two jobs so they can meet mortgage payments. Men and women who try to be two parents at once.

Lopez says she hopes to change society's image of single parents - not as the sagging foundations of broken homes but as winners who can successfully raise their children - and she hopes, in the process, to inspire other single parents who feel isolated and discouraged.

Lopez is executive director of Miss Mom/Mister Mom, a group she started in 1986. She had a 7-year-old and a newborn then. She had just been laid off her job at the potash mine, her newborn was sick, all her friends were married and she was feeling like a failure, she says, because two men had deserted her. "And my family, of course, were tired of hearing about it."

What she needed was someone, in the same boat, to talk to. Lying awake one night worrying, Lopez suddenly thought of the name "Miss Mom." The next day she got to work planning what she now calls "an emotional newsletter."

Five years later, Lopez says she has about 10,000 readers, from Utah to Singapore, and the organization, which also sponsors support groups and an annual convention, is now a United Way agency.

She sees it all as sort of the Alcoholics Anonymous of single parenting. "It's just like the alcoholic going to AA," she says. "You get strength from knowing there are other people like you. You realize you can make it."

Lopez will hand out her Outstanding Single Mother and Outstanding Single Father awards at the group's National Single Family Convention on Sept. 21 and 22 in Moab.

There are actually three winners this year, a national winner - Cynthia Whalen of Littleton, Colo. - and two winners from Utah, Carla Noble of Riverton and Bill Osusky of Moab. Whalen, whose children are 12 and 9, has survived a house fire and a return to college after a 15-year absence and works as a waitress to support her children.

Next year, says Lopez, Miss Mom/

Mister Mom will just award a Single Parent of the Year. There just aren't enough nominations of single fathers, she says. "People just assume they have no problems." But that's a whole other story, so stay tuned.- Single parents and their children who are interested in attending the National Single Family Convention can contact Tina Lopez in Moab, 259-5090. The Deseret News welcomes comments from readers on this topic or others pertinent to the Single-minded column. Please address letters to Single-minded, c/o Marianne Funk, Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110; or contact her or the writer of the column at 237-2100.