Shalita O'Neale approached her 21st birthday with more dread than enthusiasm. Reaching the milestone meant she would officially age out of the state's foster care system.

"To say I was terrified would be an understatement," she said. "I knew I had to find my own housing, health insurance and employment. I was coming from a system that had done all of that for me. At 21, you need help more than ever."

Nine years later, she is a college graduate established in a career with a home and family of her own. But she understands the desperation that comes with severing ties to a system that has filled in for absentee parents.

She has become a strong proponent of a new state initiative, known as Ready by 21. The program, established by Theodore Dallas, when he became secretary of the Department of Human Resources more than a year ago, helps prepare teens in foster care for adulthood with job training and financial literacy courses and assistance in finding stable housing and securing healthcare.

The program also helps connect each youth with a mentor.

The future can look bleak when reaching 21 means the loss of a safety net, but a mentor can be the most critical piece of the initiative, said Debra Schilling Wolfe, executive director of the Field Center for Children's Policy, Practice & Research in Philadelphia.

"Many agencies are working to give kids concrete skills, but all the skills in the world do not matter as much as having another human being who cares for you," she said. "A significant adult in the life of each child will make the program succceed."

About 4,100 youth, more than half Maryland's children in foster care, are 14 years and older, with about 27 percent of them older than 17. Those who reach their teen years in the system are less likely to be adopted, officials said, and most will leave the system without the traditional support of family.

Ready by 21 works with a network of partners in government, business and non-profits such as O'Neale's Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center. She serves on the program's task force, adding a voice of experience.

It took O'Neale, now 30, most of her teen years, but she found stability in a group home, attended college and eventually turned an internship into a job. Five years ago, she founded the resource center.

"The general public has no clue what the foster care system is," said O'Neale. "I want to raise awareness and dispel myths. Child welfare is a system. It is not a human that nurtures. I expect to change that."

Thomasina L. Hiers, deputy secretary for programs with human services, said, "Roughly 50 percent will exit foster care and within 18 months, will end up in a homeless shelter. We are working to make sure no kid leaves foster care without the skills many of us take for granted or without an adult mentor."

Larry Owens, the resource center's outreach coordinator, met Friday with a 20-year-old man trying to plot his post-foster-care future. Owens said he was glad to learn Rashard Dennis has met frequently with a social worker and attorney in the last few months.

"This shows Ready by 21 is helping in practical ways to make sure these kids get the life skills they need," Owens said.

O'Neale's own experiences show how critical caring adults can be. She was 2 when her mother was murdered, and never knew her father. Her grandmother took her in but eventually sent her to live with an uncle. He became abusive and she was removed from his home. O'Neale entered the foster care system at 13.

"Just coming into foster care is traumatic for a kid," she said. "I was angry and scared and wanted to go home, but had no home to go to, no one to connect to."

She concentrated on school and as soon as she could, worked at part-time jobs. But she did not find her niche, and one day, she recalled, "I came home and there was my social worker with the green trash bag for my things."

She was assigned to a group home, run by the Board of Child Care in Randallstown. It proved a turning point.

"They helped me find myself," she said.

O'Neale earned a degree in criminology from the University of Maryland, College Park but soon switched her focus to assisting at-risk youth. She has a home and family now, a husband of five years and a 2-year-old son.

As many as 20 young adults come to the center in Charles Village every month, some homeless and some in danger of losing their own young children to foster care. Many are motivated but need coaching on life skills and links to people and organizations that offer support.

Elwin Smith, 25 and a foster care alumnus, came to the center homeless, after dropping out of college at 22. He is working there now, sharing his experiences and his progress with others.

"I fell in here and got back on my feet," Smith said. "I can share first-hand knowledge that you can succeed."

O'Neale said, "You are never too old for family. You are never at the point in your life that you don't need support from a caring person."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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