Overcoming Poverty and Trauma

Interview of Greg Stone

By Jathan Janove

Longtime VOA Oregon employee, Greg Stone, grew up in Portland amid poverty and trauma. His dad, an addict, left the family when Greg was eight, leaving his mother to raise five children with few resources. Greg experienced a childhood with poverty and violence.

Yet he persevered. After graduating from Oregon State with a business degree, he worked with the houseless in Washington DC. Later, he got his master’s degree in social work at Portland State University and then joined VOA Oregon in 1990 to run our newly opened Men’s Residential Center.

I asked him to share some of his insights and experiences, including people that have stood out in his memory. “There are a great many wonderful people I’ve met,” he said. Here, he shares two.

Portrait of Greg Stone

Al Forthan

“Al, an African American, grew up in impoverished neighborhoods with lots of crime and drugs. He got caught up in that world and spent many years behind bars.

“Later he entered our facility and made a commitment to be clean and sober. He successfully went through the Portland Community College drug and alcohol counseling program, and we eventually hired him to work with our residents.

“Al was a wonderful human being – warm, engaging and completely dedicated to helping others. When he passed away in 2006, he had been clean for 14 years. I was so inspired by him that I took $500 out of my savings and created a scholarship in his name to be awarded to a high school senior who came from the kind of challenging family conditions that both Al and I experienced.

“Since then, the Al Forthan scholarship has grown to such an extent that since its establishment in 2006, $876000 has been given to 543 high school seniors.”

Jerome Gilgan

“Jerome never knew his dad. His mom was an addict. As a juvenile he got into lots of trouble. To avoid incarceration, he fled New Jersey at age 18 and came to Oregon where family members here helped get him addicted to methamphetamines.

“He spent about half of the next 20 years incarcerated. When he came to our facility in 2003, he said he was ready to become clean and sober. He managed for a while but had relapses. When he was clean, he did well enough that we involved him in our preventative education programs for middle school, high school, and college students to help them avoid a path of addiction and crime.

“Unfortunately, Jerome had another relapse and was out of our program and back on the streets, ‘ripping and running’ as they say. One day, while he was at a Lloyd’s Center MAX stop, a young woman approached him and said, ‘I remember you from the VOA program. Thanks to you, I made a commitment to never use drugs.’

“Jerome was so taken by this comment that he reached out to us and asked if he could come back. His parole officer approved, and Jerome completed our program and then went on to become a counselor and later, a part of our management team. He eventually got his master’s degree in social work and was hired by Kaiser Permanente where he works today.”

What distinguishes success stories from the rest?

“It’s hard to say. There are so many factors that can influence things. What is the level of addiction? How much of a hold does the criminal justice system have? Does the person have a job or a home? Does he or she have supportive family and friends – or the opposite?

“When we admit someone at VOA, it’s not based on an assessment of likelihood of success. Everyone deserves the opportunity to become clean and sober and get back on track with a healthy life.

If you were “Czar” . . ..

“First, I would end the war on drugs. It’s an abysmal failure. After over $1 trillion has been spent, no progress has been made. Criminalizing drug use is absolutely the wrong way to go.

“Instead, government should declare war on family trauma and poverty. These are the two principal breeding grounds of addiction and related crime. Rather than locking people up, our resources should be invested in supporting people who lack enough money to cover basic needs and in creating supportive home environments where young children are not subjected to violence, abuse, and neglect.

“We need to invest in creating safe housing, providing employment opportunities, and helping people with life skills such as anger management. We need a holistic approach that includes mental health support, mindfulness, and various other ways we can help people achieve sobriety and lead lives healthy and productive for both themselves and others.”

What gives you an especially good feeling about the work you do?

“There are many things. One thing I especially love is when we’re able to help someone break the cycle of addiction and crime and become the true parent that deep down, he or she wishes to be. Often, this means a lot of repair work must be done. Yet it’s incredibly heartwarming whenyou see a parent-child relationship transformed because of the parent becoming clean and sober.”