Al Forthan's Story

Al Forthan's Story

Al Forthan passed away in 2006.  His remarkable story is a tribute to the fine work he did for others.

Al Forthan: Street Smarts Making a Difference


An imposing 6 ft. 4-inch frame, a tough street-smart attitude, a long record of convictions and hard time—it was the kind of "currency" that commanded respect among fellow prison inmates. Al Forthan had it all. He also had a 25-year addiction to heroin and enough hustlers and players waiting back on the streets to keep the cycle going.

It would take some potent intervention to turn this life around, that and the one last close-call with police that left Al Forthan shaken for days.

Al was born in Portland, the eldest of seven children. The family was shuffled around from one housing project to another until Al was 13. His parents did their best raising the family with his father insisting that they get the education he never had. Al wasn't buying it. Except for sports, school was no match for hanging out with friends on the street and in pool halls, pushing the limits of the law and eventually, at age 19, getting arrested for robbery.

When he emerged from the Oregon Correctional Institute eighteen months later, he finally felt his life had some direction. He had learned a more sophisticated rule of street ethics: how to play the system, how to traffic in drugs and all the finer points necessary for starting the life of a career criminal. And, so it began.

It was the mid-60's, back when drug dealing was relatively limited to pot and pills. Before long, he had more money than he had ever had before and the rush he felt, this new sense of purpose, gave him what he believed to be "self-esteem." Everything he had learned in prison seemed to be paying off.

But when Al was introduced to heroin, the stakes were suddenly raised. It was no longer enough to just deal—now it required acts of violence in order to support his own addiction. His arrests and convictions led to nine stretches in prison, and while none of the convictions were serious enough to keep him from eventual parole, they still robbed him of a total of twelve years of his life.

"It didn't matter if I was in prison or out," Al recalled. "I was 'somebody', I had power. I was respected inside and on the streets. I'd get out and then step right back into the same game, the same habits. I didn't realize that the lifestyle itself, the power and control, had become as much of an addiction as the drugs."

Over the years, Al participated in several drug rehabilitation treatment programs. It was never a committed relationship. Nothing took. "Spin dries" he called them. "No life-altering counseling. No follow-up mentoring. You're in, you get clean, you're out. Spin dries."

The turning point came in July of 1991. As he pulled his car into the driveway, he saw police cars and officers in the process of a bust. They were not there looking for him and waved him out of their way. Al's car was filled with drugs and paraphernalia, a gun and enough cash to have landed him in a Federal prison indefinitely. Amazingly, nobody even thought to check his car before he sped away.

"The experience knocked me so off balance," Al said, "my body went into some kind of shock. I couldn't stop shaking for days afterwards. I knew then that things were out of control in my life. It was time to get some real help."

Several months later, while once again in jail, an intake coordinator and counselor from the Men's Residential Center of Volunteers of America Oregon entered Al's life and he was admitted to the treatment program.

During the next few intense months, the training he received helped him recognize how his false perceptions about himself and his world had distorted his thinking. For the first time in his life, he began to see hope for recovery as he found the understanding and strength to make some permanent changes.

After completing the program, Al enrolled in the Portland Community College and earned an Associate's degree in Alcohol and Drug Counseling.

He was a model student, on the honor roll and the dean's list. He did his internship at MRC and on December 23, 1996, Al received an early holiday gift—he was the first MRC alum to be hired as a full time Certified Addiction Counselor.

"This is where I am supposed to be," Al said, "helping these men, giving back all the support, training and encouragement I received. The program saved my life. I know where these men are coming from. I know if they are willing, the program can work for them too."

Al handled a caseload of eight clients and co-teaches the relapse prevention group. He also facilitated the "circle of color," a small group of mostly African American men, working with them on issues of race and self-esteem.  He brought compassion, caring, and years of wisdom from his own recovery experience to his work.

Al was a counselor at the MRC for nearly 10 years, until he passed away in 2006.  The Al Forthan Memorial Recovery Scholarship Fund was established to honor the man and his work, ensuring his legacy will continue as the next generation works to find solutions to the ongoing problem of addiction.