Marquita Heard was finally out of foster care. At 18, she was living on her own in a city-subsidized apartment. She was attending Philadelphia University.

It should have been the best time in her life. Instead it was the worst.

Her aunt, who was HIV-positive and too ill to work, got evicted and moved into Marquita's small Mount Airy apartment with her four kids and Marquita's two younger siblings.

Marquita soon found herself raising six children, ages 5 to 16, while caring for her sick aunt. Suddenly the $275 a month the city gave Marquita for food and bills wasn't enough.

Marquita had no private space to cry, let alone sleep, in the one-bedroom apartment. And still she felt alone.

There was never enough food. Between cooking and cleaning and taking college classes, Marquita was working three jobs. She eventually quit school.

"I felt so old," Marquita said yesterday at a city event marking National Foster Care Month. "I felt like 80 years old, like my life was just over. I'd been working so hard, every inch of my body ached."

She was forced to make a difficult decision. She packed up everyone and dropped them off at a Center City shelter. She went back to her empty apartment and felt even more alone. She crawled into bed. She didn't get up for a week.

"I laid in bed and I felt so bad about myself," Marquita said. "I was thinking my family hated me because I took them to a shelter, but they had to leave. It was either them or me."

Marquita, now 20, said she turned to the one place where she always found help: The Achieving Independence Center run by the Department of Human Services.

The center, on the ground floor of the Mellon Independence Building on Market Street, between 7th and 8th, bills itself as a "one-stop" resource for youths between 16 and 21. Here, youths who have "aged out" of foster care or about to leave the system learn life-skills, like money management and resume-writing.

This is the place Marquita turned to at age 17 when she was unhappy with her foster-care placement. A "coach," at the center, which opened five years ago, helped her find a new place to live.

The only constant in foster care, said Marquita, is change: Different homes. Different schools. Different people. New rules, she said.

"[The center] gave me a real anchor, a place to put my foot down," Marquita said while standing at a podium in the center. "In my stormy life, it was the one spot where everything was good, always clear, somebody just always had my back."

The workers at the center became her family. And there were plenty of "moms" and "dads" to "nag" her - in a good way, she said.

They got her back on track after she left her aunt, cousins and siblings at the shelter. They helped her re-enroll in college. They talked to her about goals.

"They just lifted me up," Marquita said. "I'm not tired anymore."

For information, call the Achieving Independence Center at 215-574-9194. *