For those with mental illness, leading a normal life can be very challenging, but with the proper programs it can be done. Step Up on Second’s Fresh Start, is an example of a program that has been able to help those with severe and persistent mental illness reintegrate into their communities.
The Fresh Start program, located at 1328 2nd Street, operates a convenience store with hot and cold items that is open to the public, a kitchen, and the organization also does catering. The program began 15 years ago with the goal of training those with mental illness in interpersonal, vocational, and management skills so they can obtain a regular job in the community. Each of the employees prepares food in the kitchen, waits on customers, and manages the cash register.
Amy Stone, Fresh Start’s Vocational Director, told the Mirror that Fresh Start’s catering arm serves 125-135 meals a day to Step Up on Second customers. The prices charged to the public for sandwiches and other store items are competitive or less than comparable convenience stores, so they operate at a loss. Making a profit, noted Stone, is not the store’s goal – “the point is job training,”she said.
Stone also mentioned that job training for the mentally ill is very important because “working is a big piece of the pie” for a person to be able to function successfully in the community. The other pieces are maintaining relationships and functioning socially. She added that those with mental illness “need to know how to work with their illness because they are going to have their illness for the rest of their life.”
Fresh Start employees are treated just like anyone else at a conventional job, except they won’t be fired if they disappear for a week, don’t call or don’t show up. However, there are consequences for these indiscretions. Stone explained that if a Fresh Start employee stumbles, the program will help them work through it so they won’t be fired at jobs they may eventually hold outside of the program.
The Mirror had the opportunity to interview two Fresh Start employees. Ahmad Raza, who suffers from bi-polar disorder, had been homeless, was sleeping in his car, and was arrested for burning trash. Through counseling at the DiDi Hirsch Mental Health Center he learned about Step Up on Second. Raza stated that Step Up on Second “was a place to come to when you are hungry, cold, lonely or out of my mind.” He was involved with Step Up on Second for 10 years before becoming involved with the Fresh Start program.
Raza has worked at the Fresh Start café for 6 years. To Raza, Fresh Start is a lifeline. “It gives me confidence and hope and something to do with my time, ”he said.
Davon Williams was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 19 years old and he lives at home. He became involved with Fresh Start after he and his parents became involved with Daniel’s Place, a center that works with youth, ages 18-24, who are experiencing mental health problems. Davon has been working at Fresh Start for two years and he is also attending school to obtain a certificate in medical terminology. Williams goal is to receive a degree from a junior college. He said- that Fresh Start has “given him a purpose,” and “drives me to get up everyday.”
Susan Dempsey founded Step Up on Second in 1984 to provide services to the mentally ill and their families. They now offer 25 cost-free services to over 1,200 participants a year who are referred by other agencies.