STEP Inc. served more than 20,000 individuals last year in Lycoming and Clinton counties. But the community action agency's leadership said the impact of its programs is felt much deeper than those participating.
"Our impact is much greater than just the customer," said Terry E. Roller, STEP CEO and president.
STEP programs save tax dollars, keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system and help employers, said the coordinators of the organization's five pathways - early learning, housing options, workforce development, community collaboration and independent living.
"Obviously, the customer is No. 1. That's why we exist," Roller said. "So by continuing existing partnerships or forming new ones, the ultimate objective is the enhanced service to customers. ... (but also) the community and economic impact from a lot of those projects."
Although it now offers numerous programs for all ages across two counties, the organization started as one office with one program.
STEP Inc., formerly Lycoming-Clinton Counties Commission for Community Action, is one of the nation's community action agencies that were formed after Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964.
"I think my proudest public service is STEP," said William E. Nichols, founder of STEP. "I'm very proud of STEP and what they've done. I'm proud to be a part of it."
Nichols founded the organization at the request of the city's mayor. It started with one program, Head Start.
Roller said community action agencies initially began to fight "the war on poverty."
Nichols said he wanted to be more involved with the community because of the help he received, which is what led him to signing onto the project. He explained that by serving in the U.S. Navy, he was able to graduate from college without any debt. This was his way of repaying that opportunity, he said.
"I wanted to do public service because the government paid my way through college," Nichols said.
It then expanded to include Meals on Wheels, senior centers and educational programs.
"The whole purpose of a (community action agency) is to help people help themselves," Nichols said.
And the organization has been growing ever since.
Prenatal to 100 years
Now in operation for more than 45 years and having the third-largest budget - $30 million last year for community action agencies in the state, STEP offers numerous programs and services. The organization's programs are divided into five pathways - early learning, housing options, workforce development, community collaboration and independent living.
"Our pathways are designed to support our community members in whatever stage they are in" Roller said.
Roller said there is different eligibility standards for all programs but the goal is to serve "all walks of life on all levels."
Over 1,700 volunteers contributed about 18,000 volunteer hours to STEP programs last year.
Rachelle Abbott, director of planning, explained that STEP creates programming depending on what the community needs. She said the organization would turn down funding if the program did not fit into its mission.
"We're mission-driven, not profit-driven," she said.
Ann Doerr, director of the early learning pathway, said STEP has a "very strong" relationship with local school districts, as they have more than 30 classrooms for Head Start. Early learning also provides Pre-K Counts and Central Regional Key programs.
Programs that help children in the early stages not only benefit the children, Doerr said, but everyone.
"More kids graduate from high school and fewer children are involved in the criminal justice system, which all saves tax dollars," Doerr said.
Weatherization, which helps reduce energy costs for area homes, housing and building initiatives and home ownership counseling is offered under the housing options pathway.
Roller, who formerly was director of the pathway, said it does many things, including case management and mortgage assistance.
Workforce development works to create employment skills and opportunities for area residents. Programs include Work Ready and Welfare to Work.
Jim Plankenhorn, director of transportation and CCIS, explained that STEP busses are used in a variety of pathways. Transportation is used for those needing rides to work, elderly customers going to appointments and Headstart children.
"We're sharing the ride," he said.
The next step for the organization's transportation is to have compressed natural gas vehicles.
Fred Shrimp, director of independent living, said the Meals on Wheels program has more than 400 volunteers and purchases the meals locally.
The pathway offers a variety of classes, including aerobics, ballroom dancing and tai chi.
Linkage Lycoming and AmeriCorps, which holds many programs including the walk for service, is part of community collaboration.
But Roller said STEP is looking toward enhancing its services and programs, not only sustaining them.
"I believe we've been very good at partnerships in the past and I think that will continue to play a big part of the future going forward. Certainly, continuing to nurture the ones we have and creating new ones," Roller said.
He said finding new partners, such as STEP currently is doing by exploring a possible merger with Community Alliance for Positive Progressive Action and The Campbell Street Family, Youth and Community Association, will continue to help the community as it looks for solutions during the current political and economic times.
Roller said discussions with the two organizations are going well and a memorandum of understanding has been written.
Besides the possible merger, Abbott also noted that STEP is hoping to reintroduce a YouthBuild program. YouthBuild is a federal program from the Department of Labor that teaches at-risk youth construction skills, Abbott explained.
The program would be another "community asset" STEP would be providing as it would assist in the Brodart building rehabilitation project.
"The customer obviously is the youth ... but the bigger (part) is the economic and community impact," Roller said.
The project will increase the stabilization of neighborhoods and increase the area's tax base, he said.
"The customers always are No.1 but there's all of these ripple effects," Abbott said. "It's a much bigger picture."
Both Roller and Abbott said that its these opportunities and many like it that STEP is continuously looking for to improve itself.
"We're always out there on the horizon looking for opportunities to partner and to become a greater community asset," Abbott said.
And it's this work that Nichols said makes him proud to have been a part of the organization.
"STEP has grown from a very small budget to millions of dollars a year," he said. "I think it has been and continues to be well-run. It makes me feel great when I see the buses around town."