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Ogdensburg’s Step-by-Step celebrating 15-year anniversary

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OGDENSBURG — Labels for those dealing with mental illness are not lost on members of Step-by-Step Inc., a peer-driven non-profit agency that will mark its 15th anniversary Friday.

“No man is an island onto himself,” said member John A. Armstrong Friday, quoting English poet John Donne. “There is a lot of loneliness for many of us, and it doesn’t just go away. Most of us are stranded, separated from our loved ones in a lot of ways.

“Step-by-Step offers us a place to go, with good classes and groups. It’s a social club really,” Mr. Armstrong said. “While there are haves and have-nots, we’re all in the field of mental health. Not doctors, or nurses, or therapists, but everybody chips in. There’s a togetherness here, an even playing field.”

Executive Director David A. Bayne said Mr. Armstrong hit the nail right on the head with his description of the agency, which he helped establish in 1997 “out of the worker program at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.”

Mr. Bayne said the short-term goal had been “to help folks,” but it soon developed into much more.

“At first, we just wanted to create a place where people could come have a cup of coffee, relax, and have a smoke. Nothing more. Then all of a sudden, you start establishing relationships and recognizing needs that folks with mental illness have. Great needs,” Mr. Bayne said. “It wasn’t easy, but there was a lot of opportunity after we became established and we developed some credibility.”

Eva R. and Mickey H. McDermid have been married for nearly 20 years and became members at Step-by-Step shortly after it opened.

“If you got problems or anything, the staff and membership here is ready to talk and help you out with the issues you may have,” Mr. McDermid said. “It’s a nice place. A lot of places, they don’t let you hang out. They tell you to hit the road.”

He said he continues coming back for “a lot of different reasons.”

Besides the programming for mental health, he said, there is “help with medicine, different events and outings, the cooking program and communication.”

“There’s not always someone you can talk to, especially when it comes to mental health. I enjoy knowing that I can come and go, and there will always be someone here like Dave who will take the time to talk. And to care,” Mr. McDermid said.

“I just like to get out of the house,” Mrs. McDermid said.

The vision at Step-by-Step, according to Mr. Bayne, has become to “accept one another as people rather than the labels commonly attached to people with mental illnesses.”

“We’ve always let the individuals dictate the services. We look for funding to establish programs to help these folks be successful and to be part of the community,” he said. “This is a safe spot where people don’t feel stigmatized, labeled or judged. It’s really a two-way street - not only do we feel like giving them a place to go, but also about educating the public that some stigmatizations aren’t necessarily true. It could be any one of us on any given day, based on circumstances and experiences. Crazy really isn’t all that crazy.”

What began as nothing more than floor space with a coffee pot and computer has developed into the agency providing services and programming across three counties, he said. Over its 15-year existence, Step-by-Step has doubled in size, offers transportation, and is currently looking at purchasing space for a second Ogdensburg site and program.

“We probably serve 25 breakfasts and lunches, and 40 to 50 members pass through the door each day. It’s a person-friendly environment. We help folks navigate the system in the sense of finding housing and transportation to appointments with DSS [the Department of Social Services],” he said. “We cover everything in the drop-in center from laundry and personal hygiene, to computer access, community outings, self-help groups and programming.”

Staff members assist members in developing plans for recovery which, Mr. Bayne said, “helps people prepare for when they may not be doing well.”

“It puts into place a routine to help themselves when these times occur,” he said.

Step-by-Step also offers vocational help, anger management, spirituality, and daily living programs.

“It’s really about finding out what people like and connecting them to those interests so that they can become less dependent on mental health services,” he said.

Donna M. Corey said she has been a member on and off for the past three to four years.

“I lost my husband, and with my kids grown up and gone away, there’s a bit of the empty nest feeling. You can only sit around looking at photos for so long before the four walls begin closing in,” she said. “I don’t want to be alone. I felt like nobody cared. Without Step-by-Step, I’d have nobody to visit.”

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