Mike Armani rode in the back seat of a Ford van one morning last week, on his way to Vincent House in Pinellas Park and — he hoped — to his main goal.
"I just really want a job," said Armani, 29, of Spring Hill.
Finding jobs is the specialty of Elliott Steele, 69, who guided the van down the Suncoast Parkway, and his wife, Dianne, 67, who sat in the passenger seat.
They are the founders of Vincent House, which they were driving to on the way to their main goal: creating a similar center of support and employment — to be called Vincent Academy Adventure Coast — for Hernando and Pasco county residents with mental illnesses.
The Steeles were greeted like stars by a crowd of staffers when they walked into the atrium of Vincent House, an 8,000-square-foot stucco building with shaded, neatly tended grounds that stands out as a refuge in the sprawl of Pinellas Park.
They founded Vincent House at a nearby location in 2003, after their daughter, Athena, was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a college student.
They saw that people with a mental illness need employment for the same reasons as everyone else — money to live independently, self-esteem, a sense of purpose. Yet finding it is nearly impossible without support.
Vincent House, a non-residential facility, surrounds its members with people like them, staffers and fellow clients whom they can talk to about panic attacks or side effects of medications or illness-related gaps in work history — or the look in the eyes of some employers when they hear words such as "bipolar" or "schizophrenia."
It gives them a chance to gain experience as food-service or computer workers. It trains them on how to fill out applications and interview for jobs. And it gives them an extra level of support in their first step into the work world, "transitional employment" — a six- to nine-month period when they are assigned a Vincent House staffer who trains them on the job and shows up for them on days when they just can't make it.
"That way we can guarantee employers that somebody will cover every shift," Elliott said.
"I like that, what he was talking about, transition," said Armani.
He was a good student at Ridgewood High School in New Port Richey, he said. After graduation, he worked for several years at BayCare Behavioral Health, filing medical records. He had a steady girlfriend and took graphic design classes at Pasco-Hernando State College.
But he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2012. And though medications control the symptoms, he wasn't able to hold on to his last job, at a Spring Hill plastics manufacturer.
After a promotion to materials handler, which required him to operate a forklift and mix chemicals, anxieties mounted on the job and off — worries about whether he could handle the work — and prevented him from sleeping. It was all the worse, he said, because he didn't feel he could tell his bosses about his illness.
"It was kind of a little too much for me," he said.
He left last July and hasn't worked since. And though he has been assigned a vocational rehabilitation counselor at the New Port Richey office of CareerSource Pasco Hernando, he said, her heavy case load keeps her from giving him much individual attention. He takes a long walk every day and reads books, including the novels of Stephen King, and attends regular meetings at NAMI Hernando.
But too much of the time, "I just sit around the house," he said. "I actually don't care that much about making money. I'm just looking for a place that works with your illness and lets you give back to the community."
Bob Dillinger, the Pinellas-Pasco public defender and a founding member of the Vincent House board, was asked to list programs available for people like Armani in Hernando.
"That's easy to answer — hardly any," Dillinger said. "Less than Pasco. And Pasco has less than Pinellas."
Which is why the Steeles have come out of retirement to help build the Vincent Academy in Hernando. The Hernando County Commission has donated an 8-acre site on Forest Oaks Boulevard, and NAMI is raising money and seeking a $1 million state grant for construction.
Meanwhile, the $250,000 state grant the project received last year will allow the Steeles to rent a temporary site, hire staffers and begin taking members on regular trips to Vincent House in Pinellas Park, like the one Armani and his friend from NAMI meetings, Justin Marquis, took last week.
Marquis, 33, told the Steeles he's not ready to start working, but, like Armani, is interested in learning computer skills.
"Take a seat, guys," member Maria Matta said, getting Marquis and Armani started making their Vincent House ID cards minutes after they walked through the door.
With a click of the mouse, a printer spat out Armani's plastic card — a photo of him taken in the facility's green yard against the swirling night heavens of Starry Night, a famous painting by Vincent House's namesake, Vincent van Gogh.
"That looks great, Mike," Marquis said.
They ate at a green papaya salad created by the food services workers at Vincent House and spent an hour before and after lunch editing a video advertisement of the facility's thrift store.
Sitting before a TV-sized, high-definition monitor, they pared raw video into short clips that focused on the shoes, clothes and books available at the store; they added a lively musical score and text to inform viewers of the hours. They did it all under the guidance of member Brendan Robertson.
"Wow! You got to work with the Vincent House's Martin Scorsese," assistant director Ligia Gomez told Aramani.
She then asked him what he thought of Vincent House.
"It's cool. Really good," he said. "I think you've got a really good system, everybody working on something."