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Clifford FosterClifford Foster

JS: This is John Stanko and it’s time once again for an interview with one of the Center for Urban Biblical Ministry’s Urban Heroes. Urban Heroes are those who are serving the community where they live with distinction but notice could escape the general public because they are doing important work but sometimes it’s behind the scenes. Today I have with me one of our CUBM alumni, Clifford Foster. Clifford, thank you for joining us today.

CF: Thank you for asking.

JS: When did you graduate from CUBM?

CF: I graduated approximately a year and a half ago.

JS: A year and a half ago. And how long did it take you to go through the program?

CF: it took me almost five years because of my work schedule. I could only do two classes a semester.

JS: Wow, that’s a long time to go back to school. What prompted you? What motivated you at that point in your life to go back to school and then stay with it for so long?

CF: I had this vision to start an outreach ministry. I started the outreach ministry at that time and it was through a particular church. And the outreach ministry started to grow. Through the information that I received from CUBM, I just happened to get into a non-profit organization class that was taught by you, Dr. John Stanko.

JS: Oh that’s me!

CF: But not knowing when I started class that school would be one of the turning points in what God had called me to do. So I was doing the outreach and I started the outreach center, I didn’t have much education. Actually I had a GED. I knew that I needed more education if I was going to accomplish God’s purpose and deal with the general public.

JS: So you decided to go back to school?

CF: I decided to go back to school. I was at CUBM shaking and a nervous wreck. At my age, how could I make it? How could I succeed? How could I do this? But the Center for Urban Biblical Ministry made a way. They made it possible and it was a good fit.

JS: Well, it was a good fit for us too, Clifford. You did a great job and were a wonderful student. It was always a joy to have you in class and present in the school. So talk to us a little about the outreach center or the community outreach that you mentioned as the reason you came back to school.

CF: Central Outreach Center is a resource and outreach center that helps people dealing with drug addiction to get into drug and alcohol treatment. Actually the Center started eight years ago and we were located in a little garage and that’s where we started. There were two employees. There was one employee and me who worked part time. We have since grown to seven employees.

We are now located in the plaza on the hill across from the Hill House. We provide services to get people into drug and alcohol treatment. We have placed over 3,000 people into drug and alcohol treatment. We also provide some HIV counseling and services for people to seek testing. We do other resource and referrals to job links and other services like food banks for people who are struggling.

JS: Did you ever imagine eight years ago that it would be to the level that it is today?

CF: No, I had no idea. But I knew that God is able and I knew when I started the outreach ministry that this would be possible. I was working construction and I knew I would have to retire from construction and take on the outreach center full time. And He has made it possible.

JS: So you are no longer in construction and are doing this full-time?

CF: Full-time JS: What was that transition like? What did you go through to take the big step from being employed to leading your own organization? CF: Well, God has a way of doing things and preparing you. And a lot of that I know was from activities in school that prepared me.

JS: Like what kind of activities? What kind of education? You mentioned the one class.

CF: Your class, the English classes, all the classes. I learned the concept of how to apply my Christian beliefs in a social service agency, where you’re not allowed to declare or imply that somebody should become a Christian. Through that I’ve learned how to do my part and allow God to do His part. So my part was to break the chains of addiction through services and treatment. And then that would enable God to do His part.

JS: So it was a struggle?

CF: It was a struggle because I had been doing it part time. The biggest fear was that I was doing pretty well in construction financially and would I be able to survive financially. There have been ups and downs but God always makes a way.

JS: So no regrets at this point.

CF: No regrets whatsoever. And I think about it every now and then because I had done construction for so long but not to the degree that I would want to go back.

JS: Why this particular area? Why drug and alcohol counseling and referral? What brought you to that area?

CF: At the age of 14 I started using drugs. By the age of 16 I became an IV drug user. I continued that process for most of my adult life. I got clean in 1989 through a twelve-step program and rehab. And it was the transitional point in my life to want to change my life.

And once I had been clean for a while, I was doing outreach at Central Baptist Church on Centre Avenue. We were having services in the parking lot. And the same people who had come over to the services would be people struggling with addiction. And we would pray for them and next week they would be there again. So something inside of me felt that I needed to do more, so I started taking some of these individuals to Braddock Hospitals try to get them into drug treatments.

I had done that a couple times and we were trying to work that out. We were trying to get people to get through drug addiction and more people and more people came. That’s when God gave me the vision to start the outreach center. So it was out of the pain of life that the ministry was birthed. It was based on the experience I had. And I felt that if the opportunity was there, people would take advantage of it.

JS: So you just, step by step, inch by inch, took your own experience and determined that you were going to take it to the streets and to other people?

CF: Yes

JS: Let’s go back to 1989. Talk to us about the circumstances that led to you to make a decision to turn your life around.

CF: I had been using drugs for a long period of time. I was experimental at a very young age and then got hooked and my life continued to catapult out of control. For years it was a challenge. Everything that I tried to accomplish, it seemed like I was unable to accomplish. And I had had enough.

I had enough long before I was able to get help, but I didn’t know how to get help. It wasn’t as visible. Twenty years ago services weren’t as available as they are today. You know, I was at a bend in the road. There was nothing left to do.

I was always saved. I always ventured into the church when things got rough. You know as a kid that was how we were raised. Church was the answer. Constantly I would get in a jam and I would join and I would get saved. And I guess I got saved 29 times or something. But you know I thought it was something I was doing wrong. But I knew I couldn’t let go. The answer was there. One day I just got on the phone and I called the rehab. And they said come and I went. And I’ve been clean ever since

JS: It was just the right time and God’s grace and your decision. You’ve been free for twenty years. So you were connected with a church in the early days. Talk to us about that.

CF: One more thing. I was a minister at Central Baptist Church, I was ordained, and we started the ministry through and with Central Baptist Church. Eventually the ministry started growing. We were in the garage. And we were in the raggedy garage where the bathrooms were outside the garage, but we got in and cleaned it up.

One day they came and asked us to go on our own. They didn’t think that we would fit for what they were trying to do. I was devastated because I didn’t understand how the church could ask a ministry to leave and it was a ministry of the church. Not only was I devastated, I was hurt.

When they came and asked us to leave and go on our own, the miracle of God is that I was in school at the time. I was taking the non-profit course and we were in the process of starting a non-profit. So I knew how to do the articles of a incorporation. I knew how to file for my 501(c)3. I knew how to do all the basic stuff. It was just God opening doors. And maybe it was the restraint that the church was going to put on us that God didn’t feel those were the restraints we needed.

JS: And that was my next question. Can you see God’s hand in being separated? Do you think history would ...

CF: Definitely I see it. Also I see it because look how it has succeeded. Somebody said that if it’s something that God has ordained, then God would support it. we have been growing by leaps and bounds. We have several different contracts.

We have a contract with Allegheny County drug and alcohol services. We have a contract with Community Care and Health. We have a contract with the health department to provide HIV services. We have just been awarded with the NPT program, the Neighborhood Partnership Program because eventually I got involved in our neighborhood. And I got involved in the CBA agreement between the Penguins and the City-County Sports Exhibition Authority. And we got involved in that as an organization to bring some resources to the community. I was elected to be on the negotiating committee.

JS: Wow congratulations!

CF: We finally went through that process. It was a two-year process, and we ended up signing the community benefit agreement, which is the first one in the history of Pennsylvania. The community best agreement is one with the state, the county, and the Penguins that will bring services into the community.

JS: And you were apart of that team?

CF: yes

JS: What was the negotiations like. Where they tough?

CF: it was tough, and that’s why it took so long. It was an 18-month process. There were all kinds of issues flaring up, because the community benefit agreement was based on 30 different organizations coming together. Then there was another group that arose, which was a group of ministers, and they felt like they should be the ones deciding for the community. The community didn’t agree with that. So it was always a fight between their particular group and the community benefit agreement.

JS: So there had to be negotiations among the negotiators.

CF: Yes

JS: In the end, you saw it and see it as a positive step, that this project will benefit the community through some of the services that will be made possible.

CF: Yes and also that I will be able to continue my education through Geneva’s DCP program, which I’m in now.

JS: So you’re still in school.

CF: I’m still in school.

JS: You are still learning, still growing.

CF: Still learning, still growing. Got to learn, got to grow.

JS: I’m with you on that one. I said earlier that you are a good student and you still are. And we are very proud of you and that you are continuing your educational stream. Now you said you were raised in church. Are you a Pittsburgher? Were you raised in this area?

CF: Yes, I was born in Pittsburgh. I was born on the Hill. And I grew up and was raised on the North Side of town.

JS: Now were you in church? But first tell us about your family. Brothers and sisters?

CF: My mother— my father died at a early age. And I have two sisters and three brothers. One of my brothers died of an overdose early on. And that was when we were really young. We lived on the North Side, and that’s where we grew up.

JS: Were you church goers… church members?

CF: Even as kids, we were always made to go. Even though it wasn’t a denominational issue because she always went to a Baptist church. But there was a church called Bidwell and it was more community and youthoriented. We would go there because it was half a block away from the house. And my mother would go to the Baptist church. We were always involved in church because back then that was the hub of the community where all the activities were. That was where resources were. And we were connected.

JS: What was it like growing up on the North Side. What was your community like?

CF: it was rough. I don’t know if it was the community that was rough or the path I chose (or didn’t choose) but the lifestyle that I got involved in made it challenging. I had my challenges with the legal system. Early on growing up, I had my challenges with struggles and fighting. I gagged up my throat one time with a straight razor. And later on I ended up getting shot. It was a challenging lifestyle.

Now with an education I realize how much an environment plays on the choices you make. And also how the family structure is a very important part of life to help face the challenges and transformations as you are growing up. I missed the involvement of a parent, a father that I didn’t have. And I had a single mother who worked. She refused to take public assistance. She just wouldn’t do it. And she just worked and tried to support the five of us.

JS: Are you involved in church now?

CF: yes actually. I go to Greater Allen which is AME and the pastor is Brenda Gregg. It’s really a great inspiration. She is somebody who I admire enormously. Not only is she an instrument of God, but she believes in being involved outside of church and has several ministries going on outside of the church. She works and preaches. It is just her lifestyle. It’s just the way she lives

JS: I know you’re busy but do you have any roles in your local church are you involved at any level?

CF: No actually. I do a lot with outreach ministry and I am the connection person in the church for anyone who’s struggling with drug and alcohol problems. I have network with several churches that refer clients or members that are having issues. And we provide them with services—try to get them into treatment, try to get them back on the right track

JS: Now I want to make sure that anybody listening or reading knows exactly what your organization is and where it’s located. So give that to me one more time.

CF: The name of the organization is the Central Outreach Resource and Referral Center. It is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization that is located at 1860 Center Avenue. We provide intake services for people to get drug and alcohol treatment. Whether or not they have insurance, we provide services. As long as you are in Allegheny County, we provide services. You can live in any part of the city or the county and we can get you into treatment. If you have insurance what we do is we get you in on community care. If you don’t have insurance we get you in on a county bed. We also provide HIV testing and counseling.

JS: And you said you have placed how many people in treatment.

CF: More than 3,400 and that’s not counting repeats, people we have placed in treatment two or three times. 3,400 is the number of people we’ve placed.

JS: It’s grown so much, Clifford, from where you started. What do you see for the next five or ten years in the organization?

CF: Continued growth.

JS: Fortunately and unfortunately?

CF: Yes, we will continue to grow. Actually I’m in the process of writing a grant to provide more services to the African American community because we are one of the highest risk people for HIV. The heterosexual population in the African American community has had the highest numbers for HIV than any other culture. So we’re going after particular grants to provide services to the inner-city African American community and provide resources and training and support for those that just try to deal with the stigma and lack of understanding or information that people have with HIV and AIDS.

One of the things that we are involved with is prevention. I am the prevention chair for the Southwestern Pennsylvanian AIDS Plan Coalition. This is my third year of being the prevention chair. I’m also on the board that serves seven different counties. What we find is that there’s a lot of information but people have misinformation and don’t understand how challenging it is for the African American community and how the increases are occurring because some people still think that they are not at risk. And also we do work with some churches. We provide training for different churches on HIV 101. So its working with a lot of agencies to try to get the information out to combat the HIV and AIDS altogether.

JS: What do you see as your role in next five or ten years with the organization. Are you just going to keep growing with it? Or what will be the emphasis?

CF: I’m going to keep growing. And whatever it is that God has for me to do, that’s what I’m going to continue to do. Right now, we might go into treatment. We have been asked and encouraged to go into treatment, which is a bigger scale operation. It provides the service where we not only get people into treatment but then provide the services for treatment. So we’re looking at maybe getting involved in that later down the road. But we will stay in the HIV and drug and alcohol thing.

JS: How do you stay fresh? How do you keep from getting down? You must see so many cases, some repeat cases that keep coming back through. How do you get through that without getting depressed or discouraged?

CF: It sometimes becomes challenging but only to a degree. I have been given a charge. And a lot of it is based on individual’s willingness to get clean and stay clean, and there is no exact formula for a person to follow. Everybody has his or her own process. And I know that if they do certain things they will be successful. If they don’t do certain things then they won’t be successful.

And my part is to open up the door and give them the opportunity. We never turn anybody away. If they come back ten times, we would continue to put them into treatment because we don’t know. And there is no way of knowing which time is going to work. It’s like getting saved 29 times. The next one might be the one that you get the special anointing.

JS: What about a favorite passage or verse.

CF: I like Matthew where it says, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). That’s the model we explain on our brochures. We are all responsible for God’s people. And everybody is God’s people—the saved and unsaved. That’s how we look at it. We are ready to work that same concept for the HIV/AIDS outreach center. We believe that everyone has inalienable rights to have a healthy, drug-free and prosperous life without addiction.

JS: As we wrap up Clifford, somebody is listening or reading and they are saying what difference can I make or they’re facing the size of a calling or a challenge. What words could you give them to direct them or encourage them?

CF: The thing that always comes to mind when that type of challenge comes up is that there is nothing too hard for God. If He said it, then He is going to make a way for things to come to pass. My role is to put my trust in Him to do it.

JS: So put your trust in him and do what’s in your heart. Don’t be intimidated by the size of the challenge.

CF: Don’t be intimidated by the size of the challenge

JS: Clifford ,we are so honored to have you be apart of the Urban Heroes program. You fit the bill exactly as someone who is serving day-in-day-out with distinction. And we want to help spread the word of what you are doing. Of course we are doubly proud of you, a CUBM graduate. We wish you God’s grace and blessing as you continue to embrace your purpose and do wonderful work for our community.

CF: I appreciate CUBM. It was where this started.

JS: We are delighted to have played a part of that. You keep up the good work. And we look forward to giving our readers and listeners even more updates on the good things that are happening with you and your organization.

CF: Thank you.

JS: Thank you.

CF: And God bless.

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