Lifesteps at 100: Providing generations of care
Not many nonprofit service organizations can boast 100 years of dedication to the community. In the Greater Pittsburgh region, only 12 of the 921 nonprofits in existence fit the bill.
This year, Lifesteps joins their ranks as it celebrates a century of providing generations of care along life’s journey. The nonprofit tailors programs and services for children, families, adults with disabilities, and seniors.
“When you think about what we’ve been doing for 100 years, it’s serving people,” said Karen Sue Owens, Lifesteps president and chief executive officer.
Lifesteps provides services from prenatal care through end of life, making it a truly “through the life-span” organization, she said.
“Our vision — improving the quality of life for members of our communities other people — is what we’ve focused on, which is why we’ve had such longevity.”
When Lifesteps launched in 1923, it was under a different name with a different operational structure.
Back then, poliomyelitis — a highly infectious disease caused by the poliovirus — was gripping the nation. Children and others infected by the virus developed fatigue, fever, headache, pain in their limbs, stiffness in their necks and vomiting. One in every 200 infections caused irreversible paralysis, according to the World Health Organization.
Among those who experienced permanent paralysis, another 5% to 10% died from immobilized breathing muscles.
Before Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine in 1955, those who survived this horrible disease needed crutches, leg braces, and breathing devices like the iron lung — an artificial respirator invented for the treatment of polio patients.
For Butler County families affected by polio in the 1920s, traveling to Pittsburgh was the only way to get lifesaving treatment.
“Most people in the 1920s didn’t have cars and still relied on horses and buggies to get to many places, so a 30-minute trip to Pittsburgh took much longer back then,” said John Ross, vice president of marketing and business development. “Transportation and getting to Pittsburgh was no easy task. A lot of these families didn’t have the (ability) to get the treatment their children needed.”
To make treatment more accessible, a group of Rotarians formed a Crippled Children’s Committee and eventually partnered with the Pennsylvania and National Society for Crippled Children to form a local chapter. Butler attorney James E. Marshall was present during the founding of the Pennsylvania Society of Crippled Children. The umbrella organization and its chapters later became known as the Easter Seal Society.
“Rotarians were the humble beginnings of our organization,” Owens said.
At first, they partnered with local families to get children to Pittsburgh for polio treatment. Later, the Rotarians expanded their efforts by raising money to sponsor local clinics.
“Then, it was decided that local therapists were needed, so they raised money to start hiring and paying staff,” she said.
Until then, everything they did depended 100% on volunteers. To this day, Rotarians and various Rotary clubs continue to support Lifesteps through donations and fundraising initiatives.
By the 1950s, the organization boasted eight programs and services. It was also during this period that they had enough funding to hire an executive director and incorporate.
In the 1960s, the Rotary Club of Butler started a fundraising campaign that remains a popular tradition to this day: the Election Day Pancake Festival. The 12-hour event features Rotarians volunteering to flip flapjacks onto plates for a worthy cause. Proceeds help fund Lifesteps programs and services.
“The Rotary motto is ‘Service above self,’” Owens said. “That aligns with the entire history (of Lifesteps). And still today, everybody in the organization is here to serve and focus on the vision of improving the quality of life of other people.”
Thanks to the Rotary’s ongoing efforts, the organization garnered strong community support and commitment. In 1994, the nonprofit became an independent organization from the Easter Seal Society and rebranded; changing its name to Lifesteps.
Today, Lifesteps and its subsidiaries accessAbilities and All Abilities offers more than 40 programs and services at 67 locations to residents in Butler and surrounding counties.
“We have many locations and serve thousands of people,” Owens said. “But it’s not really about the numbers and the bricks and mortar. It’s about the people we serve and the positive impact we’re making. It all goes back to improving the quality of life. That’s our purpose. That’s why we exist.”
Those who have received services from the organization may have had different experiences, but all can agree on one thing: Lifesteps has a profound impact on the lives of those it serves.
Butler County Commissioners Chairwoman Leslie Osche said two of her children attended Lifesteps’ preschool program.
“That was one of the most wonderful experiences you could ever have, is being a Lifesteps mom,” she said. “When you walked in the door there, you would ... feel at home.”
Osche was so impressed with the organization that she served as its vice president of development and community relations.
One of her favorite memories of being a Lifesteps mom was discovering her son, Zachary, was learning how to write his name. Zachary died in a drowning accident at age 4, making the memory even more special for her, Osche said.
“A couple of weeks after he passed away, I discovered where he had taken a bathroom crayon and had written his name on a bathroom tile,” she said. She sprayed the tile with shellac to preserve it.
Osche said she cherishes her time as a Lifesteps mom and later as the organization’s vice president of development and community relations. “I’m really proud our community is the home base for an organization that has impacted so many lives,” she said.
Additionally, one milestone she witnessed that has had a lasting effect on the community was the launch of the Transition Program.
The program assists students and young adults with individualized training to develop skills and gain knowledge to prepare for independent living employment and/or secondary education. Students learn about daily living skills, self-determination and receive workplace readiness training.
Julia Kaluzny, a Transition Program graduate, said Lifesteps helped her get a job, develop a good work ethic and learn the safety skills she needed to live independently.
Kaluzny praised the nonprofit during its 100th Anniversary Community Celebration event Oct. 3. As one of the first students to graduate from the Transition Program, she said she firmly believes that “with Lifesteps, anything is possible.”
Volunteering with the organization today looks different from what it did in the early years.
Community members still come to volunteer their time whether it is a local employer hosting students attending the Transition Program as they explore and learn job skills, a community member offering to read or play games with children in one of Lifesteps’ child care centers, or the local garden club planting flowers with seniors in the day program.
Some choose to donate their time to help keep the building and grounds looking beautiful by painting, cleaning or landscaping. Still others serve on various planning committees in charge of fundraising events and recognition programs.
Without the dedication of the Rotarians in the 1920s, Lifesteps as it’s known today may not have come to fruition.
Brenda Dare, Lifesteps board of directors chairperson, credited Rotarians with building the nonprofit from the ground up during remarks she made at the 100th Anniversary Community Celebration event.
“The vision and support of local Rotarians has allowed the organization to evolve into what it is today,” she said.
At the same event, Daniel Musko, Lifesteps president and chief executive officer from 1978 through 2003, called the century of service to others a true milestone for the nonprofit.
“When the stars align, amazing things will happen,” he said. “Over the last 100 years, many stars have aligned to achieve the success of Lifesteps. Our mission is service, and we’ve achieved that.”