Cynthia McGuigan is no stranger to the plight of those she helps, which perhaps is what makes her and her charity Steps4Life so uniquely effective. She describes her former life as horrific.
Originally from Los Angeles she says she “left home at a very early age because it was safer to do so than to stay,” and for the following 25 years suffered from drug addiction, homelessness and the loss of two children.
She turned her life around by entering a lengthy rehab program and benefiting from the help of a persistent mentor. Encouraged to go back to school, she became a drug counselor for 20 years, during which she gained a wealth of experience.
However, because the high rates of recidivism she encountered among the drug, probation and homeless populations, she recognized that “the service model wasn’t really working” and became convinced that she needed to try a different approach.
She wanted to start her own charity. McGuigan says that her success stems from the unique way Steps4Life is designed. She said that during the years she needed help the biggest problem she faced was getting in the door to get some help.
“There were always so many barriers even though there were big-budget programs available. We were told, ‘Oh, you can’t come here for this reason,’ or, ‘Oh, you can’t go there for that reason.’ Always these barriers. And so in setting up Steps4Life I simply took the barriers away to where we purposed to serve all populations.”
In 2001 she started her charitable work by housing two homeless girls. This was followed in 2004 with her second home for women and children. In 2011 Steps4Life received its nonprofit status.
In 2013 four additional homes were opened and in 2018 San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District helped provide their sixth house for the homeless. Steps4Life now operates six homes in the Redlands area serving men, woman and children including: veterans, homeless, domestic abuse victims, and those struggling with mental health, alcohol and substance abuse issues.
McGuigan says she has never considered herself as a victim: “The negative experiences have instead served to empower me as the woman I am today. I think that’s why I work so well with clients. Many come from the same kind of backgrounds as I did.
“I’m very blunt with clients. I work with them on an individual basis, teaching them missing basic life skills, plus, how to budget, save and to reach manageable goals. They learn to be accountable to each other in their house groups.
“We have rules. Clients have to be actively looking for work, volunteering, being productive. I work to get them out of a welfare mentality of only ‘taking’ and to give back to the community. That’s why we do the volunteer stuff with the yearly Bicycle Classic, Barrage Mansion and privately. I’m really about making people self-sufficient. That’s what I want the people of Redlands to know.
“I’m constantly looking to implement and improve whatever we can to help our clients succeed because that’s the goal. If they don’t succeed then I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, neither is anyone else.”
McGuigan shared that their biggest current achievement is obtaining office space, allowing them to have computers and free storage facilities. Steps4Life just accepted three more people into the program. These were police referrals.
“One gentleman I’d kept continually inviting whenever I would see him until finally he acquiesced. He recently got a job. He was one of those you’d see regularly on State Street.”
Steps4Life is dependent on both private donations and volunteer help. Nobody gets paid except the CalWORKs subsidized-employment girls that are assigned to them by the county.
“It is a given that we need constant support and we are extremely thankful for it. Redlands has been so dynamic and accepting of us.
“That’s important to me. I think that what we are doing is in turn important to this city, we are serving a large population and helping a lot of people.”