Jobs program helps mentally ill find work and worth in society State-funded STEP gives clients training, support

September 21, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Eric G. Beglan, 29, has a paid apprenticeship with a potter, learning a trade that he hopes will provide lifelong employment.

Jeannine Peregoy, 34, works in the dietary department at a local convalescent home and is considering a nursing career.

Such opportunities would not exist for Beglan, Peregoy and others with mental illnesses, if not for a state-funded employment program for people with psychological disabilities.

Since STEP -- the Schapiro Training and Employment Program -- opened an office in Westminster a year ago, it has placed 25 people in jobs and is training another 50. The agency provides vocational training, career counseling and on-the-job services.

"STEP helped me talk to an employer about my own concerns and to promote what I could do as an employee," said Beglan, a ceramic "productionist" since February. "They are really good people, who take an interest in each one of us. I am maintaining this job as a result of STEP."

Clients work with job coaches for an average of three months on interviewing, assertiveness training and resume writing.

"We work with the individual, helping to set vocational goals and finding them a job within the community," said Ann Grimsley, branch program manager at the center in Westminster. "These are jobs based on skills, education, ability and interest. We lay the foundation, and clients participate in the job search."

Cliff Losee, owner of Pigeon Hills Pottery in Finksburg, said Beglan was reliable and worked independently in the studio.

"I can say, 'Here is how we do it' and 'See you in an hour,' and I know he will get to work," said Losee. "This business is 10 percent creative and 90 percent hard work. Eric is doing a nice job for us."

Beglan credited his STEP job coach with dispelling myths about mental illness and helping him land the position.

"I needed help to ease an employer's fears and allow me to work and study," he said. "Few understand the impact of mental illness on the sufferer and their family and their friends."

Grimsley, a persistent advocate for program participants, has called local employers constantly, even knocked on their doors. Bias exists, she said, but "once we get a foot in the door, the majority are willing to give us a try."

Gainful employment is vital to STEP clients and was the basis for its founding nearly 20 years ago, she said.

"If I wasn't working, I would not be able to function," said Peregoy, employed full time since April and also volunteering each week at the nursing home. "That is the biggest part of my therapy. I go to work not just for myself but for the 160 patients who are depending on me."

The late Ben Schapiro started STEP in Baltimore after visiting a friend hospitalized with mental illness.

"He met all these mentally ill people who said, 'If only I can get a job,' " said Grimsley. "People need dignity through working. We derive a large part of our identity through our jobs."

The job coaches work on stress management, conflict resolution, even basic living skills. They continue with the client, on and off the job, making sure the new employee is adapting. The program also can provide some transportation.

"These are people who have figuratively been beaten around and never really learned to speak for themselves," said Patricia A. Dieter, executive director of the program, which has offices in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. "We help them develop assertiveness."

Peregoy said the program showed her how to manage her time and organize her day better.

"STEP helped me regain confidence, not only with work issues but in my personal life," she said. "They helped me with interviews and on-the-job visits. They showed me how I could do better and helped me believe in myself. They are still looking out for me."

Satisfaction and success for clients and employers are key to STEP, Dieter said. Employers are encouraged to call with any concerns. The coaches are trouble-shooters for their clients, more than 60 percent of whom have stayed on the job for six months, Dieter said.

The program hopes to build partnerships with area businesses and is working with the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.

Employers also benefit, said Grimsley. STEP does the training and placement. The federal government offers employers who hire STEP clients a tax credit of about $2,400 during the first two years of employment.

"We don't ask an employer to consider our client unless he or she can do the job," Dieter said.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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