Sometimes, when the going got tough at the University of Delaware, Nathaniel Johnson would dial the toll-free number of CollegeBound, the Baltimore foundation that helps city students go to college.
Johnson, 23, who just received his bachelor of arts degree and plans to pursue a master's in electrical engineering at Delaware, was one of the speakers yesterday at a Belvedere Hotel luncheon as CollegeBound saluted its 11th batch of scholars.
The graduate of Polytechnic Institute said he got $900 a semester from CollegeBound, but the words of encouragement on the other end of the phone, as well as birthday cards and notes, were as important as the money.
"They really gave you a support system," Johnson said. "They would tell you not to get upset, that you could do it, that it was just one test. Things like that. It was like a family."
CollegeBound officials said this part of the program is one of the main reasons that about 80 percent of the students who receive the grants -- all graduates of city high schools -- remain in school and earn degrees.
"We keep in touch with all of them," said former executive director Joyce A. Kroeller. "We put in the 800 number about three years ago. And with computers it is easy to generate the holiday and birthday cards. But some of them tell us they are the only birthday cards they get. It makes a difference."
Kroeller, who helped found CollegeBound a decade ago, was replaced recently by Craig E. Spilman, a longtime city principal.
CollegeBound distributes about $300,000 in scholarships annually in grants that range up to $2,000.
The luncheon honored the 41 high school graduates who will head to such colleges as the University of Miami and Temple University in the next few weeks.
Tracey Lanier, a 1993 graduate of Western High, said she did not receive a CollegeBound grant until her second semester at Bowie State.
"I didn't know how I was going to make it at that point," she said. "I could pay the tuition, but there was nothing left over for other expenses. So it was the difference between going to school and not going to school."
Lanier is trying to make a similar difference in other lives, working for CollegeBound as its adviser at Southwestern High School.
Though most of its scholarship recipients still graduate from the city schools that send a large percentage of graduates to college -- Poly, City College and Western -- CollegeBound is trying to concentrate more of its counseling at schools that usually send few students to college.
Rob English of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, one of the groups that founded CollegeBound, said statistics show that 2.5 percent of the freshmen who enter a city zoned high school will go on to college.
"Having Tracey at Southwestern has made a huge difference," English said. "They have doubled the number of people taking the SATs and applying to college."
CollegeBound is looking for more students like Kamal Sanders, 18, who graduated from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High and will attend Goucher College with foundation help.
"I was planning on going to trade school, but some counselors told me if I worked hard, I could get to college," Sanders said.
He said the CollegeBound staff gave him SAT tutoring and helped in applications for college and financial aid.
"I'm going to live on campus for the whole college experience," he said with complete confidence. "I'm ready for it, to meet new people, have new experiences."