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 got his bachelor of arts degree and is going 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 the birthday cards and notes of encouragement 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 that receive the grants -- all graduates of city high schools -- remain in school and get 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 school principal.
CollegeBound hands out about $300,000 in scholarships annually in grants that range up to $2,000 a year per student.
Yesterday's luncheon honored the 41 high school graduates who will be headed to such colleges as the University of Miami and Temple University in Philadelphia in the next few weeks.
Tracey Lanier, a 1993 graduate of Western High, said she did not get a CollegeBound grant until her second semester at Bowie State University.
"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. It really changed my life."
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 come from the city schools that traditionally 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 have few students going into higher education.
Rob English of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) -- one of the groups that founded CollegeBound -- said statistics show that 2.5 percent of the freshmen who enter one of the city's zoned high schools 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, who graduated from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School and is headed to Goucher College with help from the foundation.
"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 CollegeBound staff gave SAT tutoring, worked with him on essays for college applications and led him through the financial aid application process.
"I'm going to live on campus for the whole college experience," the 18-year-old said with complete confidence. "I'm ready for it, to meet new people, have new experiences. I plan to go to England my second year to study."
And if the confidence ever falters, there always is that toll-free number.