1940 Linwood Boulevard Oklahoma City, OK 73106

Firstep raises money to narrow 2018 budget gap

By: Sarah Terry-Cobo The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY – John Cloud had to get away from work. Not far, just to his car so he could sleep it off a little. He’d overdone it that morning, pouring a little too much liquor into his Diet Dr Pepper. But before he could get to the garage he was stopped by a police officer.

He’d been in trouble for public intoxication before and knew better than to lie. So he was honest and told the officer it was not the first time he had faced the situation and knew he needed help. Instead of arresting him, she told him about the Public Inebriate Alternative, sometimes referred to as the drunk tank. Metro Alliance runs the center for about $300,000 per year, funded in part by a grant from the Oklahoma City Police Department. At the PIA, people can sleep off their drunkenness and get a shower, something to eat and water to rehydrate themselves. The workers there will even wash the person’s clothes.

The 33-year-old Cloud told his story Thursday to about 400 people at the Metro Alliance’s annual beans and cornbread luncheon and fundraiser.

Cloud is sober thanks to that police officer and two initiatives OKC Metro Alliance operates. He’ll graduate at the end of the month after six months in the Firstep sober living program, making room for another person seeking a path away from alcohol and drugs. Metro Alliance Executive Director Connie Schlittler needs about $50,000 more to cover her 2018 budget, so she can buy food and clothing for people like Cloud and 125 other Firstep residents.

Cloud said the woman at the PIA’s front desk was a Firstep graduate and told him about the program. As they talked he realized they had similar experiences. Even though Firstep’s men’s center was full when he left the PIA, he kept calling for two weeks until there was an opening.

Firstep is a sober living initiative with gender-separated dormitory-style housing centers where people can live from six months to two years. The participants work at local construction, landscaping and food service jobs to help cover their room and board. Schlittler said the Firstep work program provides about three-quarters of her organization’s $3 million annual budget.

Her food expenses are about $350 daily for 126 people or about $1 per meal per person. She can buy the food cheaply from the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. Shoes cost about $20 per person. She spends about $200 daily on gasoline to get people to work. It costs about $68 per day for each person’s room and board. Once the participants graduate, they keep the bedding, clothing and work gear Schlittler bought for them while they were residents.

Grants from the Police Department and donations from many individual philanthropists help cover most of what she needs for day-to-day expenses. Volunteers run initiatives like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and financial management classes. The fundraiser helps to close the gap.

But that doesn’t leave any money to improve the Firstep housing or dining buildings. Donations from the Oklahoma Hospitality Club and the Sarkeys Foundation help make renovations possible.

Cloud said he’s grateful his family supported him along the way, let him stay with them for two weeks while he got his affairs in order and waited for a spot to open at the sober living center. Before sobriety, he said he was afraid to admit his alcoholism.

“Even though I was making progress, I was still struggling,” he said.

Cloud said once he graduates, his goal is to finish the remaining six credit hours he needs to complete a bachelor’s degree, then pursue a graduate degree in social work. He said he wants to give back, making a career out of helping people who were once in a position like he was.

“If it weren’t for OKC Metro Alliance, I shudder to think what my options would be,” Cloud said. “Had it not been for the people at the PIA, I wouldn’t have known about Firstep.”