From Addict to Cityteam Supervisor

How Brookhaven’s John Clifford turned his life around with the help of this Chester-based philanthropic organization.

Growing up in Springfield, John Clifford had access to everything—too much of everything. His father was a lawyer. His mother stayed home to raise the four kids. The family was full of love.

Then alcohol and heroin consumed him. “I [almost died] a few times of overdoses,” he says.

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Today, the 38-year-old Brookhaven resident is the food-service supervisor for Cityteam Ministries in Chester. With chapters nationwide, the organization has worked for almost 60 years to transform the lives of those battling homelessness, poverty and addiction.

Transformations like Clifford’s never get old, especially around the holidays. He used to think that people who prayed aloud were “freaks,” and the ones who handed out pamphlets on street corners “were the craziest.” Now, he counts himself among those so-called crazies. 

Once a homeless ex-con, he’s living proof of radical change for the better. Clifford helps others in recovery, and he’s helping to change the way the hungry and homeless are fed. “I got a golden ticket,” he says. “And I’m so grateful that I will do anything to help another succeed.”

These days, Clifford is fond of saying, “If I could talk to my younger self …” He began working at 14, washing dishes in a restaurant, where he observed coworkers who slept all day, then worked and partied all night. “I thought it was the life for me,” he recalls.

After earning a degree from culinary school, he continued to work at restaurants where there were two constants: rampant drugs and alcohol. “It spiraled out of control quickly,” Clifford says. “Between 1995 and 2005, I went from a guy having fun to a guy who needed rehab, as I had enablers. I was a mama’s boy, and she’d bail me out. My dad’s lawyer friends got me off on a lot that I shouldn’t have.”

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In 2004, Clifford landed a good job as a banquet chef with the Renaissance Hotel at Philadelphia International Airport. He also fathered a baby girl. 

Then he was busted again. The arresting officer was stabbed by a hypodermic needle while searching Clifford’s pockets. Clifford tested positive for hepatitis C, and was charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault. 

Within a week, he’d lost his job, his home, his daughter’s mom, and custody of their child. He pled guilty to aggravated assault, then served four months in jail, plus three years probation.

“So many people who come to us are seeking life transformation,” Clifford says. “Is it difficult in Chester? Yes, there’s crime. Yes, there are drugs. Yes, the school district is close to last in the state. But we believe that God can do something radical inside this city.”

Raised in the Catholic faith, John Clifford thought he was a believer, but not really. After a fight in jail, he noticed a few guys who’d found peace. “They told me they were waiting for me and praying for me,” he says.

Upon his release from jail, Clifford had nowhere to go. Homeless, he begged for the money that bought him a bus token to Chester in 2007. As an addict, he’d scored drugs there. This time, he wound up at Cityteam.

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For 53 weeks, he lived in its inpatient recovery facility. He learned the Bible, anger management, the 12 steps, and ways to control his sex addiction. After graduation from the program, Clifford was hired back at the Renaissance Hotel. He also did an internship with Cityteam. On days off, he attended Bible college classes, where mentors encouraged him to serve others.

In 2009, a call came from Cityteam director Kwinn Tucker, with an invitation to oversee the ministry’s kitchen. “I was told I could have anything I wanted, but I’d have to find it myself, because my budget was—and still is—zero,” says Clifford. “I had to raise my own salary. In other words, it was like, ‘Welcome to the missionary field.’”

Not only does Cityteam now benefit from his food-service experience, it gains from Clifford’s recovery experience, too. “He’s definitely the kind of person to take his changed life and give that back to help other people,” Tucker says. “He’s been a role model for guys for what their lives can be like. In his daily interaction, he’s like a coach/mentor for them.”

Cityteam provides three meals a day, every day of the year. More than 21,000 under-served individuals receive fresh produce and baked goods annually. Clifford supervised more than 83,000 hot meals in 2014. “These are things we count as normal, but our people are lining up in the rain, snow and heat,” he says.

The organization receives no state or federal funding. There’s no endowment. Staff and volunteers raise funds for programming. Seventy percent of the operating budget comes from small donations ($10-$100) made by people across the country, and less than 10 percent from partnerships with churches and businesses. Grants and fundraisers provide the rest. 

About $1 million in food is donated each year. A staff of 12 serves with Clifford, plus 200-300 volunteers a month.

WMGK’s John DeBella does a turkey drive for Thanksgiving and Christmas delivery, reaching more than 900 families. Over 11,000 toys are delivered at Christmas to some 2,600 kids. There are hams for Easter and food boxes for about 450 families. There are baskets of candy for  the kids, as well.

Along with the food, Clifford says, the ministry serves dignity, respect and compassion. The philosophy is simple: If something is given to you, you’ll want to do the same for others. And those who’ve been helped will want to return to serve as mentors, just like Clifford has. 

Cityteam’s inpatient substance-recovery program in Chester serves 34 men. The shelter has 36 beds, but sleeps more than 70 a night, many on mats on the floor. Men in the program range in age from 18 to 72, and they’re from all walks of life. One was a physics teacher, another a judge. 

“They were accomplished—and not,” says Clifford of his former bunk mates. “Addiction doesn’t discriminate. When we get them in the interview, we’re looking for the desperation of a drowning man.”

There’s also a mother-baby program that provides much-needed clothing and formula, along with back-to-school supply drives. Cityteam clients have a family income below $10,000 a year—or zero, for those living on the streets. 

“So many people who come to us are seeking life transformation,” Clifford says. “Is it difficult in Chester? Yes, there’s crime. Yes, there are drugs. Yes, the school district is close to last in the state. But we believe that God can do something radical inside this city.”

Hope Café provides an ample dose of such optimism. On Saturday nights since this past February, CityTeam has been hosting volunteer sponsor groups of 20-plus people who bring not only food but also waiters and dishwashers. There’s optional chapel and fellowship afterward. It’s like a mission field trip for interested groups from just about every world, faith-based to corporate.

In the beginning, Clifford’s burgeoning vision for his work at Cityteam needed some direction. Thankfully, he was open to feedback from fellow Delaware County volunteer Suzanne Cruit, who suggested the basis for what’s become Hope Café. It’s now a joint vision—one that’s changing the approach to urban ministries and providing for the hungry.

“It’s the mark of someone who wants to lead well—and not just by lip service,” Tucker says. “There isn’t anything I’ve been so happy or excited about for years as I am [about this]. It will change the way we eat at homeless shelters.”

At Hope Café, everyone is treated like a paying customer. “They’ll have options to order from a menu; their water will be refilled,” says Tucker of the continuing plans for the program. “It’s controversial for because we’re challenging the status quo. But we’re ready to take that next step.”

Clifford was once without hope, believing he would die a heroin addict. “It was like living the worst day of your life over and over,” he says. 

He now enjoys a happy relationship with his 9-year-old daughter, Keira, who lives with his sister and her husband. Sadly, Keira’s mother died of a drug overdose.

“I just can’t stop telling people what happened to me,” Clifford says. “If I was talking to my younger self, I would say, ‘Tsk-tsk.’”

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A Transformation: John Clifford prepares meals at Cityteam Ministries’ Chester headquarters//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.

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