Before seeking help from Vincent House, said Justin Shea, “I left a six month indentation on my parents’ couch… I wouldn’t go outside…” He explained that in high school he was energetic and outgoing, but then he was diagnosed with a mental illness. “And all that was taken away from me,” he said.
Shea compares recovering from mental illness to recovering from a stroke.
“If someone has a stroke, they have to learn how to talk. They have to learn how to walk. For me, I had to learn how to wake up and be a productive citizen. I had to learn the simple things that we take for granted.”
The transitional work programs at Vincent House in Pinellas Park helped Shea do just that. “These two transitional employment programs at Vincent House helped me get back on my feet again,” explained Shea.
In regards to his personality before experiencing mental illness, a staff member at Vincent House told Shea, “Justin, you still are that guy, you just have to find that again.”
Justin explained that this was a turning point for him.
“In that moment I realized that I am who I am and that mental illness is not going to define me,” said Shea.
Shea began volunteering with his father, coaching a Gulfport 7 - 8 year old basketball team. From there he became a part time recreation leader for the City of Gulfport, for their teen night program. Shea continued to attend Vincent House and they helped him get into school to study music at St. Petersburg College.
“Music was able to help me channel that negative turmoil, the symptoms of mental illness out,” explained Shea.
Today with the support he received from Vincent House, Justin has owned his own home for 5 years and started a family. He has been promoted in the City of Gulfport and works fulltime as the Cultural Facilities Events Supervisor.
Justin Shea’s story is not unlike the hundreds of individuals facing mental illness that have walked through the doors at Vincent House. Plans are in the works to bring a similar program to Hernando County so that the organization can do the same for residents here.
Vincent House (VH), a non-profit organization in Pinellas County is partnering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Hernando County to establish a facility in this area. It will be called Vincent Academy Adventure Coast (VAAC).
Elliott and Dianne Steele, who co-founded Vincent House in Pinellas County in 2003, are spearheading the expansion into Hernando County.
“VAAC will be a restorative community built on respect and dignity. The philosophy is that recovery is not just possible; it is probable. It will follow the footsteps of Vincent House in Pinellas County, where hundreds of members [clients] have regained friendships and returned to educational endeavors, as well as employment. Basically, they have regained their lives. Their success is a product of ‘recovery through work.’ It begins with volunteering at VH, then moving on to independent jobs,” Elliott states.
Jennifer Siem, a NAMI board member, comments, “Those living with mental health conditions are greatly under-served. We hope to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness.”
The facility in Hernando County has already gained widespread support, starting with NAMI Hernando. In fact, Vincent Academy of the Adventure Coast will be sharing a building with NAMI until a separate facility is built.
Dianne Steele states, “Depending on funding, we hope to have the new facility open within one to two years. It will be able to serve up to seventy-five people daily and three hundred or more members annually.”
According to Dianne, “Vincent Academy of the Adventure Coast will not be a residential facility, but will be a place where adults living with a mental illness will be wanted and needed to voluntarily work in areas such as meal preparation, cashier, newsletter, outreach, maintenance and much more. This will help to increase self-esteem, confidence and stamina as well as increase friendships.”
When members are ready, VAAC, will assist them with employment opportunities.
In the three short months since this partnership began, a wide range of people from the community have stepped up to the plate. These include business executives like David Lambert with Withlacoochee Electric Cooperative, Chairman of the Board of NAMI.
Government officials on the state and local level are backing this project, as well. These include U.S. Senators Bill Nelson, along with Congressmen Gus Bilirakis and Daniel Webster. Other supporters are Florida Senator Wilton Simpson and Blaise Ingoglia, Chairman of the Florida Republican Party and member of the Florida House of Representatives. The Hernando County Commission is also actively backing this endeavor.
An ambitious and worthwhile mission like this will require much support from the community, but it will give back so much, as well. It’s not just money that is needed.
“We are looking to the community to learn about mental illness and refer people to Vincent Academy. We would like them to support our efforts to help members to live meaningful, productive lives,” states Dianne.
Vincent Academy will also need part time entry level jobs as member’s transition from volunteer work on site to paid employment.
However, you don’t have to have deep pockets or be a potential employer to get involved. Anyone can help. Whether it is donating to or purchasing from the Academy’s thrift store, contributing financially or volunteering in whatever way you want, anyone can make a difference.
Julie Maglio contributed to this report.