The Story of Stairways

The Story of Stairways Behavioral Health – a 50 Year Legacy

Prior to 1961, persons with serious mental illness nationwide lived and were treated in institutional settings, often far away from family and other loved ones.

Both nationally and locally things were to change that year when new medications for treatment allowed individuals to return to their communities. 

In 1959, the chief social worker at Warren State Hospital (where those with serious mental illness from the Erie area lived) contacted the United Way of Erie County. His hopes were to gain that organization's leadership and volunteer strength so Erie would be equipped to serve those residents who would be leaving the hospital to return home. It was from this initial plea to the community that the genesis of Stairways took place! 

Laura Wallerstein, a member of the United Way, saw it an ideal project for the Erie Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, an organization to which she also belonged. Her friend Rachel Zacks Gage volunteered to be the program chair and together they rallied 22 dedicated women to take on the challenge, even traveling to Warren State Hospital to receive special training. Rachel died shortly after Stairways officially opened in 1961 and Laura succeeded her as the project leader. The list of volunteers would continue to grow and include men as well. 

The volunteers would meet with clients both day and night on a second floor loft above a downtown storefront, a space donated by the late John Robert Baldwin. Their goal was to create a welcoming place for individuals transitioning back to community, a place to share a meal, play board games and cards, shoot pool, sing songs, and plan recreational outings. Those who came climbed a steep set of stairs to the second floor. The volunteers and clients soon began to refer to this program as "Stairways" because the name symbolically represented stepping-up to a better life. 

In 1966 the council's direct involvement with Stairways ended when it became incorporated as an independent nonprofit organization and began receiving funds from the Erie County Office of Mental Health/Mental Retardation which continues to fund some of Stairways many programs. 

The conviction and service Stairways' founders exemplified more than 50 years ago remains very much at the heart of Stairways Behavioral Health today along with their spirit of hospitality and belief that all people deserve the opportunity for a quality life. 

Over 400 employees who work at Stairways, and the hundreds of volunteers who donate their time and talents, are committed to making a difference in the lives of those recovering from mental illness. 

That's what hope, a flight of stairs, and Stairways Behavioral Health are all about.


"Stairways helped me to work on recovery, one step at a time." -Ron S

© 2018 Stairways Behavioral Health. All rights reserved. 2185 West 8th Street · Erie, Pa 16505 · Phone: 814-453-5806 · Fax: 814-453-4757 · Toll-free: 1-888-453-5806 · Contact Us · Sitemap