When Al Forthan knew he was going to die, his only regret was not having more time to give to those in need. Although most of his life consisted of drug dealing, hustling, criminality and prison, Forthan spent his last 10 years helping others at the Volunteers of America Men's Residential Center.
Now, nearly three years after his death, an education scholarship in his name has grown to nearly $10,000 and is helping low-income students affected by addiction get an education.
'If I can do it, so can you'
After nearly 25 years of heroin addiction, nine stints in prison and a history of controlling a large share of vice activity in North Portland, Forthan had had enough, according to Greg Stone, director of the VOA Men's Residential Center. With prison time looming over his head, he came to the newly opened center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and got clean for the first time in his life.
Ignoring advice from others in the drug rehabilitation industry, Stone decided to hire the former client as a counselor.
"It was pretty clear that he was an amazing guy with this ability to connect with the fellows," says Stone. "He was just this amazing, inspirational counselor who touched hundreds of guys with his wisdom."
He spent the next nine years of his life working for Stone and the many men who come through the residential center.
Although several years have passed since the counselor's death, it's not hard to find remnants of him at the center. A collage of pictures from the annual bike ride in his name is featured prominently in the foyer of the center, as is a plaque of the recipients of the Al Forthan Scholarship. Many employees and friends of the center also remember him fondly.
Bill Moore, a longtime friend who took part in many of the same criminal activities, says it was Forthan who got him to get clean. Moore says he was dealing drugs not two houses down from the center when his friend got clean.
"I'd hold up a bag of drugs to try and entice him," Moore says. "He'd say, 'Nah, I gotta make this work.'"
After some plying, Forthan got Moore to come stay at the center, who initially came for a 'tune-up' so he wouldn't use so much of the product he needed to sell. But Moore started changing and realized he wanted to end his longtime addiction.
Maurice Brown, a former client who followed in Forthan's footsteps to become a counselor, says he presented himself in a very serious, but caring way. He always made himself available, even to those men he wasn't assigned to counsel.
"This wasn't a game for him," Brown says. "His philosophy was, 'If I can do it, you should be able to do it.'"
Apply for scholarship
If you are interested in the scholarship, please contact Julia Peters at 503-802-0299 or [email protected] or [email protected] for specific guidelines. The scholarships are awarded based on a multi-page essay and are due by April 5, 2010.
If you're a child growing up in a house with someone who suffers from an addiction disorder, it's very difficult not to be impacted, says Stone.
"There's a certain amount of pain and anguish you experience as a kid growing up in a home with addiction and violence," he says. "Ninety nine percent of these guys that come through here grew up in a home like that."
When he created the Al Forthan Scholarship with a personal contribution of $500, he knew that having an education can greatly influence one's direction in life.
"When you're a little kid growing up in one of these families, life's not fair to you, but at some point, you start being not fair to life," he says. "Education is one of those amazing things in life that help equalize those injustices."
Stone himself grew up with an alcoholic father. Many neuroscientists now view addiction as a chronic disease that can be heavily influenced by genetics, as well as environmental and behavioral factors. For Stone, his interest in academics and sports dominated his life. His three brothers succumbed to an addiction disorder.
The Al Forthan Scholarship is targeted to students who have been impacted by addiction disorders. For 2010, Stone is looking to give eight students $1,000 from each of Portland's lower income high schools – Jefferson, Benson, Franklin, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt, as well as one from the remaining public schools. Stone also awards one $2,500 scholarship to a student from a family with a history of addiction disorders.
"If we use Al's legacy in terms of honoring him to give students a chance to go to school, Stone says. "Education is an equalizer to injustice and the pain that addiction strikes through society, hopefully you can get kids to think about, how do they do life differently? Too many kids are partying, it's a norm in our society. If you can make one kid look at it, and say 'Hey, I don't want to do what my parents did.' To get them to write that essay and say, 'Hmm, I learned about risk factors for kids who come from addicted families, do I want to go that route? No I don't want to.' I think that's success."