Among South Florida social service agencies the story is legendary: Georgia Foster, a court reporter whose son was dying of AIDS, used the $4,333 winnings from her Lotto ticket to start a program to help people afflicted with and affected by the virus that causes AIDS.
The story could have been so much different.
Georgia and her husband, Don, spent that fateful lottery weekend six years ago in their Plantation home thinking _ incorrectly, as it turned out _ that her winning ticket was worth $931,900.
Oh, the people Georgia Foster could have helped with almost a million dollars. And, oh, the people she has helped starting with just over $4,000.
Today the agency that Foster founded, Think Life, is a $1.5-million, 30-employee, non-profit organization with four residential facilities, an emergency center for homeless AIDS patients, a transportation network, adult and child daycare centers, and an in-home respite care program.
With the agency's success has come personal acclaim for Foster. Avon Products honored her last month at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City as one of six national Women of Enterprise. In March, she was inducted into the Broward County Women's Hall of Fame. Two years ago, she received JM Family Enterprises' African-American Achievement Award.
"It hasn't been easy, but I know I couldn't have done what we've accomplished by myself in the short time we've been established," Foster said. "Whenever I receive any type of award, I always think that the award should really be split into thousands of pieces and given to all the people who have helped."
No one helped Georgia Foster better understand the ravages of AIDS and HIV than her son, Gerry.
Foster began her adult life as a cosmetologist in her hometown of Detroit, where her husband was an executive at Motown Records. When the company moved to California, the Fosters and their sons, Gerry and Derrick, moved, too. Georgia sold real estate there for several years before the couple moved to Florida in 1979, so that her husband could work with K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Her husband is now a financial consultant.
Gerry was a paralegal and a minister still living in Los Angeles when he telephoned his mother in 1985 to tell her he was HIV positive.
"When he first called, I really didn't know anything about AIDS. After I educated myself and learned what it was all about, I was really more emotionally supportive of him," said Foster, who was operating a Miami court-reporting service at the time. "He was independent and healthy and taking care of himself. He did a lot of volunteer work with hospitals and AIDS organizations, preparing food and helping people complete applications."
The one problem her son kept finding: People afflicted with the deadly virus often have no place to live. Gerry, after his HIV infection turned into AIDS, was evicted from his apartment _ while he was still in the hospital.
Georgia Foster took her son's message and, one Sunday afternoon in 1990, gathered 20 friends at her home and revealed her plan to open a residential facility for people with AIDS and their families.
The next day, one of the people at the meeting said he knew someone who could help. The man owned a small apartment complex in Hollywood, Fla. He wanted someone to take care of it. He lived in Los Angeles most of the year. He had AIDS.
Starting with that one apartment complex, Foster began figuring out how to establish and fund a non-profit organization.
First she chose the name, Think Life, "because I want people to think about living as opposed to dying." The group's symbol is Rodin's The Thinker, holding a newborn baby.
Jasmin Shirley Moore, AIDS patient-care director for the Broward Public Health Unit, was one of the first people Foster visited.
"A lot of people told Georgia that she couldn't do it, but she was very persistent," Moore said. For about a year, Gerry Foster was an integral part of the agency. "He was very intelligent; he could do 10 things at once," she said. "When he died, I really missed that."
Gerry Foster lived with his parents for 18 months. The final six months, his mother recalls, "he was like a zombie. His spirit had already left him."
He died on Dec. 7, 1993, at age 36.