Colby Swettberg is executive director of Adoption & Foster Care Mentoring organization.

Around this time of year, thousands of young adults who’ve just turned 18 are getting started with their first year of college. They’ll spend the next four (or five or six) years transitioning from late adolescence into early adulthood until they’re ready to live on their own.

But turning 18 means something else entirely for many older adolescents who have grown up in foster care. It means they have been fast-tracked to independent living, without many of the supports youth typically get from their families of origin and without much of an adjustment period. Statewide, there are 8,976 children and young adults in foster care. About 260 are in the Cambridge area.

Some are seeking what’s called an Alternative Planned Permanent Living Arrangement — a term that applies to youth in foster care ages 16 and over trying to establish a “lifelong permanent connection” with an adult who will help them “obtain life skills training and a stable living environment,” according to a quarterly report from the state Department of Children and Families.

Without this, the immediate future for many youth “aging out” of foster care is bleak. Turning 18 can mean a sudden loss in housing and financial assistance, access to resources and relationships with caretakers and providers. Left to support themselves, young people leaving foster care rarely have the social capital, economic means or skills to make a smooth transition into adulthood. Many often lack the basic tools necessary for success, such as a high school diploma, driver’s license, work experience or a bank account. Studies show that these young people face disproportionately higher rates of homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, dependence on public assistance, substance abuse and a tendency for other high-risk behaviors.

Research sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences tells us it helps if we can provide young people consistently with the following five resources:

  • Ongoing, nurturing relationships with adults and positive relationships with peers.
  • Safe and stable places for living, learning, working and playing.
  • Values, skills, opportunities and supports that promote physical and mental health.
  • Educational preparation and economic opportunity.
  • Chances to make a difference through community service and civic engagement.

This fall, as other 18-year-olds settle into their dorm living arrangements and look toward a future of continued learning, the Adoption & Foster Care Mentoring organization will invite a cohort of youth to join the AFC Leaders program and help young people aging out of foster care. The program will offer mentorship, skill-building workshops, leadership opportunities and individualized s aupport — and also chance to earn up to $3,000 in a matched savings program as they learn much-needed life skills such as financial literacy, housing, transportation, self-care and career development.

But what can you do to help? Plenty.

Working with a young person in need is a critical step toward helping them avoid a future dotted with homelessness, incarceration and chronic unemployment. Adoption & Foster Care Mentoring has great need for ordinary people willing to make an extraordinary commitment to youth in foster care. If you can be a mentor and dedicate at least eight hours a month over 12 months, you can make a difference. In the process, two lives can be changed for better: that of the young person being mentored, and yours. You just might be surprised at what you learn about yourself in the process.

Colby Swettberg is the executive director of Adoption & Foster Care Mentoring. She was recently named a member of the national 2012 class of Angels in Adoption by U.S. Sen. John Kerry and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute