Having parlayed the Humane Society of the Nature Coast from a minor entity into a major force in Hernando County over 12 years, Joanne Schoch was best known for her passion for animals.
Now, she is coming out of retirement after two years to take on a new role as executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Hernando — and planning to bring the same enthusiasm to the job.
"From the time I was 6 years old, I took care of my mother … who had mental health issues, depression," Schoch, 63, explained. "I became the parent, and she was the child."
While the youngster cooked, cleaned and accompanied her dad to the Laundromat, misunderstanding acquaintances thought her mother was lazy.
Having experienced life amid mental illness, as well as its perceived stigma, Schoch brings a fervent dedication to a job she started Oct. 6.
"She has credibility in the community, great respect," said David Lambert, newly elected president of the NAMI Hernando board of directors. "She's shown proven leadership skills with the humane society."
Board member Katie Stacey noted Schoch's expertise in grant writing, a necessity at NAMI since it depends on grants, fundraisers and donations to fuel its $100,000 annual budget.
"Major fundraising" is high on Schoch's agenda, not only to enable programs that serve the mentally ill, but also to spread the word about NAMI's necessity and its endeavors to help the afflicted and to overcome the stigma associated with mental illness, she said.
NAMI Hernando has existed for 30 years but, Lambert said, "You don't know NAMI unless you need their services." The agency served more than 2,000 families last year, he said.
"So many people are falling through the cracks," Schoch said.
She mentioned people who are not found to have mental afflictions until they become involved with the judicial system, others with undiagnosed mental health issues, and minimal outreach and services due to a lack of public financing.
To address some of those needs, NAMI has embarked on adding an adjoining unit to double its 1,400-square-foot Beautiful Mind Center at 10554 Spring Hill Drive in Spring Hill. With renovations, estimated at $7,500 to $10,000, support groups and services will be able to expand.
Also, the new space will serve as the ground floor for a new endeavor, Hernando House, a job training program and site being modeled after St. Vincent House in St. Petersburg. Programs will aim to overcome the propensity to isolate those with mental illness, build confidence, train for jobs, "to have people feel useful and eventually to get into the workforce," Schoch said.
Toward that end, NAMI also is considering opening a thrift store in the same plaza where clients can put to use some of the mental health and job skills they will have learned, help build their resumes and raise a bit of money for NAMI.
"One of the key portions" of establishing Hernando House and the thrift shop, said Lambert, "was to get a good director, and we think we have that in Joanne."
Coming soon will be a survey, via a flier, to determine interest in a six-week parent education class on mental health and illness, tentatively starting in November.
Meanwhile, NAMI is continuing to provide educational classes and support groups for those with mental illness, as well as for their families and caregivers.
At the same time, Schoch pointed out, "We're not a Band-Aid; we do not administer medications; we do not do counseling. We are informational, educational support."
Still, "the people who come here can have a full and rewarding life," she said.
And, harking back to her other passion, Schoch added, "Clients can bring their pets. That's perfectly all right with me."
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]