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Step-by-Step celebrating 15-year anniversary

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OGDENSBURG — Stigmatizations and labels attributed to those dealing with mental illness are not lost on members of Step-by-Step Inc., a peer-driven nonprofit agency celebrating its 15th anniversary Friday.

“No man is an island unto himself,” member John A. Armstrong said Friday, paraphrasing 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.

“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. It wasn’t easy, but there was a lot of opportunity after we became established and we developed some credibility,” he said.

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.”

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.”

The agency provides services and programming across three counties, he said. Over its 15-year existence, Step-by-Step has doubled in size, now has transportation available and is looking at purchasing space for a second Ogdensburg site and another 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,” 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 wellness recovery action plans which, Mr. Bayne said, “helps people prepare for when they may not be doing well.”

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

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