Natalie Bell of Olney is getting ready to buy a home -- something that didn't seem possible five years ago for the single mother of two teenage daughters.

So is C.D. Brown of Silver Spring, whose dream of home ownership had appeared out of reach as she struggled to raise four children on her own.

Now financially independent after years of receiving public housing assistance, the women credit their success to the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, a federally mandated program overseen by the county's Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC).

Bell and Brown were among 47 county residents who graduated recently from the program, which is designed to help people in public housing and those receiving federal housing vouchers achieve self-sufficiency and end dependence on welfare in five to seven years.

The program is voluntary, but participants sign a contract committing them to achieving economic independence. Escrow savings accounts are established for each family. The families save money by agreeing to pay a higher rent to HOC based on income increases. A portion of that rent is put into the escrow accounts.

Since the program's inception in 1993, 427 families have graduated, and 101 of them have purchased homes. Graduates earn an average of $13 an hour, a 200 percent increase over their average previous earnings. The average size of a graduate's escrow account is $10,000.

"The whole program is pretty amazing," Brown said. "Basically, everything that you do, you're doing for yourself, and you're rewarded for it with a home."

Each participant is assigned a case manager who provides guidance in career planning and helps resolve personal and family issues that can hinder efforts to achieve financial independence. Financial assistance, up to $500 a family a year, is available to help with transportation, child care and continuing education costs related to getting and keeping a job, program coordinator Nancy Scull said.

"We're helping them with learning skills, good problem-solving skills," she said, adding that case managers steer participants toward other available resources. "They're learning how to work the system. It's life skills training."

Currently, there are 441 families participating in the program; many are single mothers in their mid-thirties raising one or two children. They are women who have lived through tough times, often dealing with such issues as homelessness, abuse and addiction problems, and who would like to change their lives, Scull said.

"We're attracting those people who have some hope that they can do better," she said. "When they come into the program, they really don't think they can change, but would like to."

For Bell and Brown, the program provided a safety net as they worked to achieve their goals.

Bell, 37, signed up in May 2001. A former D.C. parking officer, she was able to "do a complete career turnaround" with tuition funding from the program.

"I'd always done administrative work. I was totally bored with it," she said. "I was always focused on income to take care of my kids."

With the tuition help, Bell earned a paralegal certificate from Howard University. She is now a secretary in the federal Department of Transportation's Office of General Counsel and plans to continue her education, possibly following her dream of becoming a lawyer.

Bell said the program's budgeting workshops were a big help in getting her financial life in order. A grant program allowed her to buy a car, enabling her to work a night job while attending Howard.

Bell is considering buying a home in Baltimore under a program for first-time buyers. She also has been selected to participate in the Housing Opportunities Commission's upcoming lottery for a moderately priced home in Clarksburg.

Brown, 55, who suffered from debilitating depression after the death of her father, signed up for the program because she was intrigued by the possibility of buying a home after only five years.

Once she became involved, she was further impressed that the program's counseling and mentoring was geared toward helping her and her family achieve more than just financial independence.

"Everything I did in five years didn't have much to do with buying a home," she said. "What they did was, anyone with low self-esteem, anyone with a lack of education, these are the things they offered you. They built up your self-esteem, they gave you a safety net, so to speak."

Brown completed her goal of taking computer classes, which helped her in her human resources job with the District government.

Over the years, Brown bonded with her case manager and the program's volunteer mentors. She took home-buying classes and lost weight through Weight Watchers, paid for by the program.

Looking back on her years with the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, Brown realizes that she is leaving with much more than a nest egg.

"In five years, you find out a lot more than that," she said. "When you meet the right people in life, they're an asset in your life forever."

For information about becoming a volunteer mentor, call 301-929-5679.

Natalie Bell of Olney recently graduated from the Family Self-Sufficiency Program. She said it helped her "do a complete career turnaround."