By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
The thrift store at Catholic Charities of Oswego County in Fulton was bustling on a recent afternoon, full of patrons browsing through the racks of clothes, tables of knicknacks and shelves of books and household items. There were plenty of bargains to be had, and customers snapped up items as fast as staff could put them out.
In between stocking and straightening clothing displays, Patty Jayne helped ring up purchases. She didn’t mind being busy. In fact, she prefers it that way.
“I have to be busy,” Jayne said. “I can’t just sit around.” Which is clear, considering she also does janitorial work at the Women, Infants and Children Program offices in Oswego and even staffs the Catholic Charities snack bar when needed. She likes working at the thrift store, though, because of “the customers you meet, being active and helping others out,” she said.
But Jayne and the store do more to help people than just provide affordable clothes. Profits from the store feed back into Catholic Charities, helping to support the food pantry and other emergency services. The store also serves as a job site for clients in the Step by Step Wellness Program.
Now in its seventeenth year of operation, Catholic Charities’ Step by Step program provides support services to adults with diagnoses of chronic mental health illnesses. In the program’s welcoming, empowering environment, clients can gain and strengthen the skills they need to live independently and move toward recovery.
Jayne is one of the newer Step by Step clients, having joined the program just last spring, but she comes to the program most days and is already an integral part of the community and the store. As Step by Step coordinator Pam Peeling said, “The program works for her, and she works for the program.”
Jayne and her fellow Step by Step clients — about 120 in total, with 10 to 15 coming through the doors each day — came to the program through referrals from doctors and health care providers, county case managers, counseling centers or other clients. Their diagnoses reflect the broad spectrum of mental health illness, ranging from attention deficit hyperactivity disoder to severe depression and anxiety to schizophrenia; some also have co-diagnoses of developmental disabilities. They are younger and older, male and female, Catholic and unaffiliated. All are recognized as individuals with unique talents and skills to offer.
The program is staffed by Peeling, three generalists and three part-time peer generalists. All work to provide structure, positive role modeling and encouragement to the clients. The peer generalists offer a special kind of support and true understanding, as they also have mental health illness diagnoses.
Each client is paired with a generalist who helps him or her set and work to achieve goals for participation in the program. Goals can be as simple as drinking two glasses of water every day to improve health or as complex as applying to and attending college, Peeling said, because the program aims to promote total wellness in its clients — mental, physical and emotional — and foster independence.
The program is client-driven; clients decide the direction of their participation and make recommendations on what activities and services would best suit participants. “We don’t do anything for them,” Peeling emphasized. “We provide the path for them to do it themselves.”
As a result, the program’s offerings are broad and varied, including presentations from motivational speakers; workshops on budgeting and quitting smoking; support groups to promote healthy relationships and peer recovery; classes to build computer skills and literacy; and activities like crafts, meditation and exercise.
Transitional employment services are also a key part of the program. Job hunting can be a difficult endeavor for anyone, often more so for people whose mental health illness diagnoses can make finding and keeping work a challenge. Step by Step’s transitional employment support helps clients bridge the work experience gap by offering positions in the thrift store and other sites in the area. But these positions are not just given, they’re earned. Jayne landed her job at the store just like any other gig — by applying and interviewing for it. In this way, clients gain critical application and interview experience and, in the case of jobs at the store, experience interacting with customers, managing stock and working as a team. Clients can then transfer those skills to positions in the community.
Management of the thrift store is a new undertaking for Step by Step. Formerly run by emergency services staff, the store transitioned to its new leadership when Step by Step moved to its current location at Catholic Charities’ headquarters in September. “[The clients] love working here,” Peeling said. “They’re proud.”
The move has also provided a number of other benefits and improvements. The physical space is more open and accessible, with no stairs or warren of small rooms as in the previous location. And Step by Step is now under the same roof as Catholic Charities’ food pantry, CYO after school program, case management and administrative offices. This put clients closer to other services they use and helps them to feel like an integral part of the Catholic Charities family, Peeling said.
But the move has not been without challenges. Though the new office is just one mile away from the former location, the change was difficult for some clients to handle and some have not returned. The progam also had to end the door-to-door transportation they formerly provided. The decision was financial, adult mental health programs supervisor Tim Archer said, but the service also undermined the program’s entire goal of creating opportunities for its clients to live independently. The program is now encouraging clients to learn and use the public transportation system — though the confusing bus schedule and infrequent service poses its own set of challenges.
Longtime Step by Step client Tina Swatkowski has embraced the change and loves the new space. She’s solved the transportation issue by walking the mile from her home to the program each day. This, coupled with Step by Step’s group exercise class, has helped her to lose more than 70 pounds and the need for a wheelchair in the last year.
Swatkowski is a shining example of how Step by Step can empower its clients to make positive, powerful progress. Swatkowski met her husband through the program, and has also started her own nonprofit organization, the Parents Supporting Parents Support Group. “It’s a support group for parents with psychological and developmental disabilities,” she said, which provides support as members work to raise their children and care for their families independently. “We are a year strong and the first group [of this kind] in New York State to run this long,” she said. She is currently in the process of recruiting board members and securing office space.
Clients like Tina are what make Peeling, Archer and Executive Director Mary Margaret Pezzella-Pekow truly love their jobs.
“When I come down to the snack bar, the greetings, the smiles I get, they show me that what we’re doing here is doing good,” Pezzella-Pekow said.
“The staff’s hearts are wrapped around what they’re doing,” Peeling agreed.
And what is being done at Step by Step is incredibly important. Oswego County’s support for people with mental health illness diagnoses is limited to just a handful of providers. County budget cuts are threatening them all, and Catholic Charities is not immune. Though the agency does receive support from the HOPE Appeal, the United Way and private donations, the bulk of their funding comes from government contracts. The cuts have forced excruciating staffing and programming decisions, but the agency will continue to do all it can for its clients, Pezzella-Pekow said.
Archer echoed the sentiment. “We strive to show our clients that they have a lot of worth, not just to the program, but to the community,” he said. “We are reducing the stigma around mental health illness and helping people to see a different face of these diagnoses. We are helping our clients see and prove that they are not an illness, but a productive, valued person as a whole.”
Catholic Charities of Oswego County and the Step by Step Wellness Program are located at 365 West First St. in Fulton. For more information on services available and how you can help support them, visit www.ccoswego.com or call (315) 589-3980.