Long-time STEP director retires
FAIRMONT– Sue Eisenmenger, Executive Director of STEP Inc., is retiring after a long and fulfilling career with the organization which provides support, training and employment for people with disabilities. Eisenmenger has been with STEP for 44 years.
Originally from Fairmont, Eisenmenger went to college at St. Olaf and worked in the metro area for a short amount of time before coming back to the area.
“My husband and I applied at three different places, Duluth, Faribault and Fairmont and we got positions here first so we came back,” Eisenmenger said.
She originally began working at REM the first year it opened in Fairmont. In the summer of 1979 she began working at what was known as the Martin County DAC in Sherburn.
When she got started working for the DAC, Eisenmenger pointed out that schools did not provide services to many children with disabilities at that point so parents got together to hire teachers and other people to put on activities for them during the day, which is how the DAC got started.
“It stood for different things. In the 60s it stood for Day Activity Center and then it changed to Developmental Achievement Center as the trends and philosophies about taking care of and working with people with disabilities changed,” Eisenmenger explained.
In 1987, the organization changed to STEP Inc.
Eisenmenger is unsure what first sparked her interest in working with people with disabilities but noted that she grew up with a neighbor her age who had a disability and in college she did some volunteer work at the state hospital which she enjoyed.
She actually graduated from college with a degree in education but found that there weren’t many job openings so she began working at a placed called Portland Residence in the metro, which was a large residential service for people with disabilities, prior to moving to Fairmont and starting at REM.
Over her 40 years in the field, Eisenmenger has seen a number of changes. One of the biggest ones is the way the general public views people with disabilities– where they should be, what kind of assistance they need–which Eisenmenger said she believes has improved.
“It’s maybe not where it should be yet. One of the most satisfying things that’s happened in my career is being able to help get people moved out of the state hospitals and back into their home communities,” Eisenmenger said.
She said that the county human services worked together to get all of the people from Martin and Faribault counties who lived in state hospitals back into the community here. With this came the emergence of more residential programs and day services.
“That’s probably one of the best things I did,” she said.
STEP has grown tremendously since Eisenmenger got started with it.
“I frequently tell people I’ve been in the same position but not the same job,” she said.
When she started, they were located in Sherburn and served about 25 people with 10 staff and a few vehicles.
“Now we’re on the verge of working with about 130 people. We have a staff of about 60 and I don’t know how many vehicles, maybe 25. We have three locations,” Eisenmenger said.
STEP serves people in Martin, Faribault and Watonwan counties. It has a board of 12 people who meet monthly and oversee the finances and policies, in addition to supporting the executive director.
One long-time board member is Ned Koppen, who has served on and off for 20 years, including some as board chair.
The board was recently tasked with hiring a replacement to fill Eisenmenger’s role. She shared that she was actually going to retire before the Covid-19 pandemic hit but decided to stay on several more years.
“We were very lucky that Sue didn’t retire before covid. There wasn’t anybody better suited to get this organization through that challenge and ended up not only surviving but growing on the back end,” said Koppen said.
While a replacement has been hired that everyone feels happy with, Koppen stressed the amount of hats Eisenmenger wears and how involved she’s been over the course of 44 years.
“Our challenge was finding someone who could come close to doing everything that Sue did but we were really lucky to find a good replacement,” Koppen said.
Eisenmenger noted that STEP is actually going through a period of growth right now as it’s receiving more referrals and expanding its services.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Eisenmenger said.
Koppen added, “It’s a great time for people with disabilities but a challenging time for people that provide services because there are changes. STEP does a great job of providing client-based services, helping them find a workplace to participate in and community to interact with.”
While STEP still does group services, Eisenmenger said they’re beginning to shift more into individual-based services, especially in the employment realm.
When it comes to what Eisenmenger will miss most about STEP once she retires, she didn’t hesitate to say the people.
“If I’m having a bad day, just getting up and walking back to talk to the people we provide services for always makes my day better,” she said. “Staff and clients both.”
With her free time, Eisenmenger said she plans to spend more time with her grandchildren and her three daughters, two of which live in Fairmont. She also wants to look into other interests which include family history and history in general.
“Other volunteer things I’ll be interested in picking up on. I’ve done some work in inclusion and diversity and have reasons, both personal and professional, that make me interested in pursuing that,” she said.
A retirement party is being held for Eisenmenger this Sunday, Sept 10 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Red Rock Center for the Arts in Fairmont, though she will stay working awhile longer to finish up some work on a new electronic billing system and catching up on some administrative items.
Come fall, she will be fully enjoying retirement after a long and satisfying career.
“I didn’t really intend to be here 44 years. I never really thought about it, it just kind of happened,” she said with a laugh.
Eisenmenger stressed that she couldn’t have done 44 years without a lot of help from a lot of other people and while she appreciates the comments, she pointed out that it’s been a group effort.
Mostly, she’s grateful for the opportunity to have done something she’s passionate about for so long.
“People with disabilities have really changed my life,” Eisenmenger said.