Step By Step is unknown to many in Pierce County, and that isn’t by accident.
The nonprofit helps at-risk mothers support healthy babies from pregnancy through infancy. It has operated under the radar for 18 years, even as it has built partnerships with South Sound businesses and organizations.
Quietly, it has helped about 1,400 women each year deliver healthy babies, embrace positive parenting and establish safe homes.
Now, Step By Step has quietly moved into the most visible part of the former Van Lierop Bulb Farm in east Puyallup.
The nonprofit has big plans for the beloved property, which had been one of the valley’s last daffodil farms before becoming shrouded in controversy and uncertainty two years ago.
Krista Linden, Step By Step founder and executive director, said the organization has launched an ambitious campaign to raise $1.5 million to purchase the Van Lierop homestead and create a hub for staff and job training for clients, among other services.
Retired daffodil farmer Neil Van Lierop signed an agreement in December to sell about 7 acres to the nonprofit, so long as it raises the funds to acquire the land by Aug. 14.
“It’s desirable because it has a legacy and a history,” Linden said of the property. “That sense of place is probably the biggest thing for me.”
Nostalgia lingers at the Van Lierop homestead near Pioneer Way East and Shaw Road.
The historic house, barns and outbuildings are skeletons of an operation that Van Lierop ended in May 2013.
Lore Van Lierop says the new tenants are a welcome sight for her and her husband, who still live on the property.
“They’re taking good care of the place,” she said. “They’re keeping it warm. We feel good about having them around.”
Linden, who comes from a farming family, is excited about using Step By Step’s plans to revive some of the Van Lierop history.
Walking through the empty gift shop where locals formerly bought bulbs and flowers, Linden said she hopes to offer services familiar to the Van Lierop’s loyal customers. Those could include a 50-seat restaurant, wedding and event spaces, ice cream and bicycle repair for trail users, and a gift shop.
And, of course, Linden hopes: flowers.
“We’d love to have flowers back in there,” she said.
All of the services would be aimed at equipping vulnerable mothers with basic job skills to support themselves and their babies, Linden said.
“Our desire is that they don’t get sucked into welfare,” she said.
None of the plans are set in stone, but Linden said the land has a lot of potential.
“There’s a lot of square feet to work with,” she said. “We want to have a very professional experience when you come here.”
Step By Step’s plans might soften the edges of an ongoing land-use debate that has pitted open-space advocates against property owners.
Puyallup residents and officials have been confronting the changing face of their once agriculture-rich city. The city’s identity centered on daffodils for decades, but that legacy is dying.
Roger Knutson, owner of Sumner-based Knutson Farms, is the last remaining daffodil grower in the area after Van Lierop’s retirement.
Van Lierop and Knutson collectively own hundreds of acres that some consider the last blank canvas in the Puyallup Valley. Some are worried about plans that could spur a “sea of warehouses” on land they call a gateway to the city.
Schnitzer West, a developer with an agreement to buy land from Van Lierop, plans to build a 470,000-square-foot warehouse near the homestead where Step By Step operates.
The industrial project was subject to a number of controversial actions by the Puyallup City Council – including a rezone, moratorium and an ordinance strictly regulating design standards – and eventually resulted in a lawsuit against the city. A trial is tentatively scheduled for May.
Meanwhile, Knutson has submitted short-plat applications to Pierce County for a warehouse distribution center covering 181 acres on 13 parcels adjacent to Van Lierop’s land just outside the city limits.
Mayor John Knutsen, a staunch supporter of property owners’ rights, said Step By Step will be a positive presence amid the industrial development.
“With all the changes that are going to occur in that area, it would be very nice to have that stand out,” he said of the nonprofit.
Councilman John Palmer, an advocate for preserving open space in the area, echoed the mayor’s remarks.
“I think it’s a wonderful organization and it’s a real nice fit for the land,” Palmer said. “It’s a nice way for the Van Lierops to pass on their legacy.”
Palmer acknowledged that the city could do more to guarantee thoughtful development and preserve open space, but he said Step By Step’s proposal is “a wonderful first step.”
SUPPORT AT THE START
Linden says she was inspired to start Step By Step after meeting a girl with fetal alcohol syndrome who received help too late.
A student-teacher at the time, Linden said she was heartbroken after meeting the girl’s mother.
She said she’ll never forget the girl’s vacant expression and the poor living conditions. She eventually ended up in foster care.
“The mother was completely hopeless,” Linden said. “(The girl’s) face kind of haunted me,” especially after Linden’s first daughter was born.
Linden and husband, Jon, have seven daughters, and Linden grew up in a strong two-parent household. She said early intervention in the life of an expectant mother is key. It’s the foundation of Step By Step’s mission.
“Those choices made during pregnancy are so important,” she said.
The nonprofit includes in-home maternity support services, Tacoma-based transitional housing, parenting classes, life skills classes and more. It has a partnership with CHI Franciscan Health to provide resources that were eliminated from the health system during the recession.
Hundreds of volunteers and a staff of nearly 30 nurses, behavioral health specialists, dieticians and administrators work with mothers in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties.
Referrals come from schools, churches, doctors and state and county agencies.
Robyn Wiebe, a behavioral health specialist who does case management for the nonprofit, said she works in mothers’ homes or places they feel comfortable.
Each mother is assessed for need and connected with the proper resources. They range from struggling single moms to homeless women working to overcome addiction.
Wiebe said all the mothers, no matter their situation, share a common goal: “to be the best mom they can be,” she said.
Linden said studies have shown that a child’s life course is set by the time they enter school.
By intervening during pregnancy, she said Step By Step strives to help mothers break out of generational poverty and take control of their situations.
The Van Lierop property is the perfect place to build that sustainable future, she said.
“I believe in constant growth,” Linden said. “What better place to cultivate and inspire this way of thinking than on a farm?”