STEP pioneered supported employment programs for people with mental disabilities in 1984. It remains one of few such self-standing programs nationwide. The state Department of Rehabilitative Services (DORS) worked with the program in its early stages and remains a consultant.
"It was an innovative program for people with psychiatric disabilities in those days," said Kathi Long, a DORS staff specialist. "They placed an individual with a disability directly in a job in the community and provided a job coach to help increase job success.
"Until then, most rehabilitation programs took place in the more sheltered facilities themselves," she said.
The program's founder, Bernard Schapiro (1899-1991), began the movement to support people with psychiatric disabilities, believing that individuals needed the self-respect afforded by work. "Dignity Through Work" remains STEP's motto.
According to Dieter, more than 3,500 people have gone through STEP, with 2,000 gaining employment with such businesses as Hopkins, the Baltimore Orioles, Safeway Inc., Maryland Science Center, Maryland School for the Blind and Target Corp.
Several veterans remain from STEP's inception, including Robert Schapiro, grandson of the company's founder and one of the first to go through supported employment. Schapiro began working as a ticket-taker for the Orioles in 1992 and was promoted to a security position screening bags taken into Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
But a growing number of clients have taken other career paths. Scholtz, who began with STEP in 1998, now is a full-time job coach.
In addition, Johnson works for On Our Own Inc., a statewide mental-health consumer education and advocacy network. Norris works for STEP -- aiding with marketing, administration and a variety of other tasks. He also fills in for absent computer instructors.
Besides a growing budget -- the program started out with a staff of five and a $90,000 budget -- STEP's geographic boundaries also have expanded beyond Baltimore City. It now operates in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Queen Anne's, Talbot, Caroline, Kent and Dorchester counties.
The program recently received licensing to work with people affected by mental retardation, brain injuries and other physical disabilities. STEP recently began a marketing campaign to help solicit donations. Several other missions loom, Dieter said.
No matter how the program grows, at least one STEP graduate will be pleased.
"Only some of us learn by other people's mistakes," Norris said. "The rest of us have to be the other people."