Hundreds have taken so many steps forward in their lives because of Susan Dempsey, 73, a mental illness advocate of more than twenty-five years and the founder of Step Up on Fifth.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dempsey at the opening of Step Up on Second, a new apartment facility for many members of Step Up on Fifth in the heart of Santa Monica. It was a brief meeting, an introduction and a handshake. But she was thoughtful and thanked me for coming to the public opening of the new facility.
When I interviewed Dempsey over the phone a few days ago, she told me she had been out gardening in her home in Santa Barbara. It’s one of her favorite pastimes and she says of it: “I just find it relaxing and comforting. I love being out.”
Dempsey’s life is no longer dedicated to running the non-profit organization she founded on her own in 1984, but she keeps it close to her heart.
“I am not involved in running the organization but I do attend all the events and openings. If they needed me I would be there in a second. But I am retired now and enjoying my family, especially my grandchildren.”
It’s a retirement well deserved. On her own, Dempsey founded Step Up on Fifth in 1984, at the age of 48. At a time when most would not think of starting a new business or changing careers, Dempsey dove head in to help the mentally ill.
Dempsey’s son was diagnosed at the age of 25 with schizophrenia. Problems arose with her son around the age of 18. Like many his age, he experimented with drugs and alcohol but his behavior had become more irrational. Dempsey believed it was his drug abuse causing the problems.
Having to deal with her son’s diagnosis, Dempsey joined National Alliance on Mental Illness, (NAMI). There she found comfort among many members who also knew how it felt for a loved one to be dealing with a mental disease. Through those meetings Dempsey was not only able to cope but found the inspiration for Step Up on Second.
“Our main concern was our children can be treated and possibly medicated for their diseases but many times after all the rehabilitation, our children had nothing to do. And it was going to be hard for them to get a job.”
In 1982, Dempsey partnered with the Mental Health Association to raise money for a lease on a 7,000 square foot warehouse in Santa Monica. “Our goal was to have a facility where people who had a mental disease could come and hang out, be able to spend time and avoid getting in to trouble.”
Throughout the years, Dempsey battled with funding for Step Up on Second and had problems with visitors at the facility. Dempsey also dealt with her personal issues, but she continued to step forward with her life and witnessed the organization she founded grow to help many.
Dempsey also dealt with her son’s issues. Even though the facility had been founded with the best intentions for him, he has always refused to participate. “He has a problem with large groups, he would come in for coffee and then be on his way,” says Dempsey.
“He does not stay in one place very long and that’s true for many who have come and gone through Step Up on Second.”
Chuckling after the previous statement, Dempsey adds: “But it is worth it. I have been able to help so many individuals and families and I find comfort in that. I have been able to help so many with something I thought at times I did not know could make it.”
Dempsey finds the biggest comfort is knowing the organization she founded is still up and running, “So many times a founder leaves and things then fall apart, but not at Step Up, I know I left it all in good hands.”
For more info visit www.stepuponsecond.org