Marquita Heard came home, plopped down on her Strawberry Shortcake comforter, and stared at the popcorn ceiling. She never wanted to get out of bed again. At 18, her bones ached like an 80-year-old's.

The college freshman had recently dropped out of school, and was working three jobs to care for her sick aunt and the six children she looked after, including her own brother and sister.

They all had been living in Heard's one-room apartment. Heard had just returned from dropping them at a local shelter. After six years in foster care, she dreaded what would become of her brother and sister.

"I felt like I had failed them," said Heard, now 20.

She turned for help to the Achieving Independence Center in Philadelphia, a Department of Human Services program for children who age out of the foster-care system. The center, open to people from 16 to 21 years old, runs a cafe and trains participants in skills ranging from undergoing job interviews to coping with the stresses of independent living.

The agency has helped about 1,100 teens and young adults since it opened four years ago. Yesterday, acting DHS Commissioner Arthur C. Evans Jr. hosted an open house to show how the agency aids some of the 2,000 children who age out of the foster-care system in Philadelphia each year. Without the help, many end up on the streets or dependent upon public assistance.

Heard knows the dangers.

"If you don't have a plan, you're in trouble," she said after sharing her story with a group of child advocates.

She said she had saved for two years before she fled a foster home where her host family kept separate food provisions - one for the half-dozen foster children there, a better supply for their own children.

"I was getting good grades, so I thought I deserved to live with someone nice, not someone mean," she said.

Heard got an apartment through a DHS program that helped pay for rent and school. She paid for books and utilities. She felt grown-up.

Then her sick aunt got evicted and showed up at Heard's apartment with six children - her own four, and Heard's 14-year-old brother and 5-year-old sister.

Her aunt was too sick to move, and Heard tried to tell the children everything would be fine.

"I wanted to cry, but the kids were there and I couldn't find a private place to cry in my own house, because everyone was sleeping everywhere," she said yesterday. She gave the children money and planned trips to the aquarium, the normal routines of life. But gas and electricity bills ballooned from $30 per month to $120.

Heard worked three jobs - one in the cafeteria, another as a peer educator and a third as a teacher's assistant. None of the jobs paid more than $8.50 per hour.

Her dreams of school faded as the bills piled higher. She quit school. Finally, she made the terrible choice to take her aunt and the children to a shelter.

In foster care, a child's life is always changing. New parents. New rules. A new house or a new school. Being treated poorly makes the heart long for family.

"With all the bad treatment you suffer through in foster care, you just want a family so bad," she said.

Her brother and sister forgave her. Heard began to forgive herself after her aunt found another home and the children were safe.

Now Heard is back in school at Community College of Philadelphia. Next year, she will study landscape architecture at Temple University's Ambler campus.

The center helped pull it all together.

"I feel like I learned my first real bit of wisdom," she said.

Contact staff writer John Sullivan at 215-854-2473 or johnsullivan@phillynews.com.