WHILE her husband spent his first year as governor on the front pages, Lavender Patten has quietly grown in confidence as patron of 55 organisations. The woman who wanted the security of the presence of the chairman of the Hongkong Association for the Mentally Handicapped when she was interviewed in November for Operation Santa Claus, spoke with confidence when interviewed this week about her year helping welfare organisations in Hongkong. ''We sat down one day and worked out that I do something on my own, without Chris, roughly three times a week. It can range from making an important speech, to an opening to entertaining children in the garden,'' she said. One of Mrs Patten's favourites has been little publicised parties for groups of children and elderly people at Government House. ''I enjoy watching their delight as they troop through the house, look at the cars, play with the dogs and meet the policemen. I think it's being able to come here that makes the day for them, and we have such fun having them here.'' She hopes to be able to welcome many more people to Government House over the next four years. Lavender Patten has been a very high-profile patron of many of the organisations and has won universal admiration. ''She stayed so long,'' is the usual delighted comment after one of her visits, normally followed by ''and she was genuinely interested in our clients''. Personally, she finds there is a definite downside to what she describes as her ''VIP visits''. People, particularly old folk at multi-service centres she has visited, are normally very polite ''but on visits like this, it is not easy to have an in-depth conversation with anyone. I find it a definite disadvantage. The thing to do would be to get to know the people the next time around. It's a great excuse for a return visit.'' Next week Mrs Patten will be taking part in the ''doctor dog'' scheme, when she will be taking either Whiskey or Soda with her when she visits the Cheshire Home in Chung Hom Kok. The idea is for visitors to take their pets to visit the old folk at the home. In her first local newspaper interview, with the South China Morning Post last December, Mrs Patten said she was prepared to do ''a PR job'' for the mentally handicapped if that was what it took to keep the issue in the public domain. She said too, that before coming to Hongkong, she knew little more than the average person about the mentally handicapped. Now, she takes an obvious delight in their successes and is looking forward to September, when she will be visiting the Century Hongkong Hotel in Wan Chai and talk to a young man who has secured a job there as a bell boy, through the job placement service of the Association for the Mentally Handicapped. Mrs Patten is waiting and working towards the day when a job like that for a mentally handicapped person will not be such a cause for celebration. Her hope is for any and all jobs for the mentally handicapped to be so commonplace, they will no longer be conversation pieces. ''I always try to convey in speeches how important it is to help the mentally handicapped and accept them and what they can do. What I have learnt is just how much the mentally handicapped can achieve when given the chance. ''Obviously they have more problems than other people and they find it harder to learn, but they have such wonderful patience and perseverance.'' She was particularly impressed with the skills she saw being taught at the Advance Training Centre at Pinehill Village in Tai Po. She had not been aware until then, how mentally handicapped people could be taught to work with their hands. It was then she realised how they can be taught to live normal lives and acquire skills to support themselves. ''The other plus is how easy they are to please. We should all appreciate the positive side of the mentally handicapped. ''One of the drawbacks has been the confusion between the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill, but it is just as wrong to assume that mentally ill are potentially dangerous. What the government needs to do is press on with public education. ''What is important is to acknowledge people do have misgivings about the mentally handicapped and for the Government to go through as much consultation as possible to foster acceptance.'' One of the many things Mrs Patten hopes to devote time to in her second year in Hongkong is getting young people to do volunteer work. ''I'm particularly keen to encourage young people to keep the environment clean. Volunteer work teaches them values and I think they have fun doing it. (daughter Alice, 13, is a regular volunteer at Mother's Choice, a shelter for babies waiting for adoption). ''I understand the problem in Hongkong is the young people have a lot of homework, but it's something schools could think about. It gives young people a sense of values and what being a citizen means. ''It helps relate to what's being asked of them and gives them a bit of motivation and pride in what they do. The one important aspect is the presentation of projects. Whatever they do must be fun,'' she said. Another project she wants to encourage is the attitude of the donors she met at a function for the Hongkong Marrow Match Foundation. ''All those I spoke to said they felt fine afterwards and they shared that feeling of satisfaction at having helped someone to live.'' One of the aspects she admired most about the donors was the way even those who knew the recipient had died, did not feel their effort had been wasted. One thing very dear to her heart is the welfare of families and she would like to see more emphasis there. ''I understand that there is not perhaps that solid family basis for many of our families here, where both parents work and even grandparents are not available to look after the children. ''As a family lawyer, I know the importance of having to break that cycle of disadvantage parents and children of divorced families suffer from. Many never recover. ''I knew before we came to Hongkong that things weren't going to be the same here. A lot of it is the lack of space. It strikes someone from the west. The initial impression is a feeling of overcrowding. Mrs Patten finds being patron of more than 50 different organisations has meant spreading herself really thin, even though she was careful to take on only those she felt she could help. She appears to be enjoying Hongkong and says she has been pleased to discover its great diversity. Governors' wives normally find themselves cast in the role of would-be social workers. It seems to be their lot. Some have warmed to the job. Others have been visibly ill at ease and there are those who will remember the governor's lady who plainly wanted to be elsewhere. Mrs Patten may not have had too much to do in the field, considering her training as a family lawyer, a husband active in politics, three growing daughters, not to mention two houses, one in London and one near Bath before coming to Hongkong, but she hasslotted in like a made-to-measure glove.