ROCHESTER — The folks at Step by Step Inc. never have bought into the "out of sight, out of mind" approach to the population they serve.
Pat Merle contends that female inmates and parolees are largely an invisible, forgotten group. Yet she believes they deserve the same basic dignity as any other human being — and that, by attaining that dignity, they might just turn a big corner toward reintegrating into society.
"I think the reason we do this (ministry) is that we see women who are disenfranchised, with no hope, grow and blossom. That’s worth it," said Merle, Step by Step’s executive director.
Merle founded Step by Step in 1992 with fellow Catholic, Margy Mayk, who currently serves as the group’s fund director. The two women parlayed their backgrounds — Merle as a social worker, Mayk as a retreat leader for people in recovery — into a nonprofit organization for women who are, were or could become incarcerated.Located at 228 S. Plymouth Ave., Step by Step has served more than 4,000 women through its outreach programs at the Monroe County and Albion State correctional facilities.
Inmates come voluntarily to Step by Step’s group workshops and explore such themes as self-esteem, survival and relationships. Storytelling is pivotal in this process, as facilitators strive to create a setting that allows women to relate their stories openly and without being judged.
"We do not ask the women about their crime or why they are there," said Gina DiGiovanni, Step by Step’s coordinator and program facilitator for Albion. But such details come tumbling out nonetheless, she said, as women describe drug and alcohol addiction and the horror of domestic violence they’ve endured and sometimes even committed.
"They are all reacting to trauma in their lives," Merle said, noting that sharing stories is part of the healing process and a healthy alternative to other coping mechanisms: "There are drugs to get away from the pain, not because they’re drug addicts. My hypothesis is, they’ve buried this all inside."
Unearthing the truth requires the women to go deep beneath the surface to confront realities they can’t share with family or friends, and/or couldn’t previously face themselves. From there, they can begin to discover their own answers for rebuilding their lives and, with the support of fellow inmates, become aware of their strengths as well as their future hopes and dreams.
"You have to help them tell their story, and then they can rewrite it," Merle said.
This focus on intensely personal issues often results in women invoking their spirituality.
"They always relate their experiences back to their higher power," said Lelia Jackson, family-empowerment coordinator and transitional-housing case manager for Step by Step.
The workshops produce "one of the deepest spiritual sides I’ve ever seen," added Liz Schnucker, vice president of the group’s board of directors.
Another priority of Step by Step — based on its finding that mothers with minor children constitute 70 percent of its target population — is offering support programs, retreats and other activities for women and their families once they’re on the outside. Merle said such aftercare not only helps keep women from returning to prison, but also reduces the odds that their children will end up there as well. She added that several former inmates who have been through Step by Step now serve on the organization’s staff and/or corps of volunteers.
"They make great facilitators," she said.
Merle said the recidivism rate is significantly lower for women who have taken part in Step by Step. Even so, she feels that statewide funding for this type of women’s programming is severely deficient compared to what’s available for men. She said Step by Step subsists through grants, individual donations, contracts and support from businesses and faith communities, but right now is grappling with the likelihood of significant government cuts.
"It’s always been a struggle, but we make it," Merle remarked.
She and Rita Metras, secretary of the group’s board of directors, stressed that the overriding reason for supporting Step by Step more than justifies the financial commitment.
"We change women’s lives," Metras stated.
"And their children’s and families’," Merle chimed in.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Step by Step welcomes volunteers and financial donors. For more information, contact Pat Merle at 585/224-0763 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.stepbysteprochester.org.