STEPS in right direction

Published 8:31 am Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Editor’s note: This article and its accompanying images are reprinted with permission by The Longaberger Co., a maker of handcrafted baskets based in Newark, Ohio. The article appears in the Summer 2009 issue of Signatures, a quarterly publication for members of the Longaberger Collectors Club.

There is potential in all of us. Potential to succeed, to learn, to grow, to make a difference. And, if we are lucky, opportunities will arise that allow us to explore and fulfill our own unique potentials and build the future we desire.

In Farmville and Victoria, a group of individuals strive to meet their full potential, and they do so with great pride. With the opportunity provided by an organization called STEPS, Inc. and the endless support and encouragement of the STEPS team, these individuals are finding out what it means to be part of the American work force.

Sharon Harrup is the CEO of STEPS Inc. as well as a charter member of the Longaberger Collectors Club and a branch leader with the company. And for the past 18 years, Harrup, a Courtland native and graduate of Southampton Academy, has poured her passion and her belief in potential into the organization.

“Many of the people who come to STEPS, because of their disabilities, could just sit back at home and draw a check,” Harrup said. “Instead, they want to work. They want to be here. They want that pride that holding a job brings us all.”

Harrup is passionate about the importance of work and of feeling productive. “Work makes you feel valued. In fact, work defines us in our culture. It’s the first question you ask people when you meet them: ‘What do you do?’ Now, the people who come to us can say, ‘I work at STEPS.’”

First Steps

STEPS, an acronym for “Southside Training, Employment and Placement Services,” is a nonprofit organization in Farmville which provides job training and employment opportunities to people who have disabilities such as mental retardation, mental illness, traumatic brain injury, autism or physical disabilities.

When Harrup joined STEPS, then called a “sheltered workshop,” in 1991, she began shaking things up right away with her passion for her work.

“The label ‘sheltered’ is stigmatizing, and I thought it showed a segregation in our community.

“We’re not sheltered,” Harrup said. “Both of our manufacturing plants are completely integrated and employ both people with disabilities and people without disabilities — working on the same production line. And it’s created the best camaraderie I’ve ever seen.”

Workers help one another learn new tasks. They support one another and share holiday gifts, some purchasing gifts for family members of their co-workers who have disabilities. “It’s the way I wish our whole society worked,” Harrup said.

Supporting the Troops

Table after table in the STEPS manufacturing area are covered in Army camouflage material. Workers place pieces of Army Combat Uniform (ACU) jackets together, sew them into place, trim loose threads, fold them to exacting military specifications and prepare them for shipment. 100,000 of these jackets are manufactured at STEPS every year.

STEPS’ contract with the U.S. Department of Defense originated in 1997 as part of an arrangement that provides work to organizations that employ people with disabilities. To be eligible, an organization must ensure that 75 percent of the workforce is comprised of people who have disabilities. However, that doesn’t mean the contract is a sure thing; regular inspections are mandatory. Quality assurance representatives regularly visit the STEPS plants and perform stringent inspections of the work. They count loose threads, examine the number of stitches in a jacket and perform overall quality checks.

“One of the things we’re so proud of is that, to maintain that contract, we must deliver quality and make delivery of the finished product on time,” Harrup said. “And we do.”

She stresses that the work, although part of a government program that provides work to organization like STEPS, is not ‘busy work.’

“The Department of Defense doesn’t give us this work just to make people happy. This isn’t busy work. It is real, it is important to the military and it is important to the people who do the work.”

‘My Jacket’

With their unyielding focus on quality, STEPS recently received a rare certification from the Department of Defense. After a very rigorous certification process, STEPS earned an “alternate release certificate,” which means that the ACU jackets made for the military can be shipped directly from STEPS without a final DOD sign-off.

“They don’t give that certification out very frequently,” Harrup said. “And to think that a group of people with disabilities earned that is a tribute to Nancy Conner (manufacturing manager) and the entire staff.”

The day an Army colonel arrived from New York to award the DOD certification was a red-letter day at STEPS. “It was amazing the response that our folks had,” Harrup said.

“Reggie Shaw, who has very severe disabilities and hardly ever talks to strangers, went up to the colonel and asked, ‘Did I make your jacket?’ The colonel unzipped his jacket to look at the product tag.

“We hadn’t actually made his jacket, but Reggie doesn’t initiate a lot of conversation, so that exchange was a big deal for him. It shows you how much pride he has in his work.”

‘I have a job!’

Like Shaw, every worker at STEPS has a story. April Tucker lost her sight at age 6. She works at STEPS turning pocket flaps for the ACU jackets and has been there three years. She enjoys working on the jackets and says she considers her work part of supporting the troops. “If they can support us, we can support them.”

Richard Hayes was referred to STEPS through a state agency that assists persons with disabilities in becoming employed. He says the best thing about working at STEPS is spending time with the new friends he’s made there. Hayes has a brother, but he doesn’t live at home, and Richard doesn’t see him as much as he’d like. “I got no sisters,” he said. “But some people here feel like a sister to me, like my family.”

When asked what he likes best about STEPS, Eddie Thorne is crystal clear: “I have a job!”

Thorne has worked in several different industries and recently returned to night school to obtain his GED. He’s been with STEPS for seven years and is proud of his work on the ACU jackets. “I have patriotic pride, pride knowing the military is fighting for us,” he said. “It’s good to know that I’m contributing to the defense of the country.”

Making an Impact

Just as she believes work helps define the people she works with, Harrup’s work is a large part of who she is. Her conviction is evident when she talks about it. “Personally, I’m a Christian with a very strong faith. I believe with all my heart that the impact we’re having on the lives of the people with disabilities who work with us is life altering. I’m very fulfilled in my work.”

Harrup also believes that more companies throughout the country should hire people with disabilities. “I’m in this field because I truly believe that everyone deserves the right to work — whether they are severely disabled or a multi-generational welfare recipient,” Harrup said. “It pains me to know that 80 to 85 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed. It’s a travesty.”

However, through her involvement with community business groups, Harrup is beginning to see an encouraging trend. “We are now recognized as a valuable source of manpower and employment solutions. Industries that can’t fill their jobs, that have high turnover, that can’t find employees who will show up — they’re looking at us and asking, ‘What is it about you that works? Why do your employees show up for work? How do you maintain such high quality?’”