NEENAH - People who struggle with addiction, often struggle to find work.
That used to be the case for Mary Brown, 31, of Appleton. She is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict with a criminal record.
"I started drinking when I was 14 and I progressed and heroin became my drug of choice at 26," said Brown.
Today, Brown credits more than a year of sobriety to treatment and her job at STEP Industries in Neenah.
STEP Industries specializes in packaging, manufacturing and assembly work for large companies like Kimberly-Clark.
It was started in 1982 by a former vice president of Kimberly-Clark, who struggled with addiction. At the time, he also served on the board of directors at a men's halfway house in Appleton. He was inspired to start STEP Industries after seeing that many of those staying at the halfway house had trouble finding jobs.
Today, STEP Industries employs 110 people in Neenah and 20 at a branch in Milwaukee. Nearly every employee is a recovering alcoholic or drug addict. In-house breathalyzers and urinalysis testing are done only on suspicion.
"You don't have to be in treatment, but 70 percent of our employees are affiliated with a halfway house or with probation and parole or who have gone through treatment recently," said Michelle Devine Giese, president of STEP Industries.
Devine Giese is a recovering alcoholic.
"Seventeen years ago I was in a car accident," she said. "I've been clean and sober ever since."
Though many of STEP Industries' employees are on the road to recovery, evidence of their dark pasts remain.
"So many of us have criminal histories and backgrounds that a lot of employers would take one look at your resume or application and say 'forget it'," said Stephanie Grossman, an employee.
That is not the case at STEP Industries, however. In its 30 year history, it's helped more than 8,000 people who struggle with addiction start a new chapter.
"We are teaching people job skills and how to be good employees," said Devine Giese. "So that when they go to their next job, they're coming in all set up. They know how to be a good employee, take direction, follow through and be dependable."
On average, an employee will stay at STEP Industries for 6 months. Hourly wages are between $7.25 and $8.50 an hour.
Devine Giese says every year, more than half of STEP Industries employees find success -- with job offers from different companies, acceptance into school or completion of their treatment programs. In the meantime, those who remain at STEP Industries are finding comfort in their co-workers, who fight the same battle of addiction.
"It's nice because I can come into work and not worry about who's talking about going out drinking, who's using and we can understand each other's problems and struggles," said Brown.
It's why STEP Industries is making a difference for people like Brown, who's job will provide her benefits that could last a lifetime.
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