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Vincent House for mentally ill seeks to expand in Pasco

Doug Hammond, a Vincent House member, hug his mother, Jane Hammond, after speaking in public for the first time.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times (2009)

Doug Hammond, a Vincent House member, hug his mother, Jane Hammond, after speaking in public for the first time.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Steve Scofield has endured anxiety most of his 63 years. It ate away at him as a kid and got worse when he joined the Navy and went through shelling in Vietnam that incapacitated him with fear. Then came the mental illness diagnosis — paranoid schizophrenia, depression. Psychotic episodes. Drug use. Hospital visits.

He dug himself out of a hole, he said, finding self-esteem and a job at a place in Pinellas Park called the Vincent House, which champions "recovery through work.'' Now he wants to welcome it to Pasco County.

"I believe in it," said Scofield, who credits Vincent House with inspiring him to pursue higher education. "There's no pill — no program — nothing like hands on work. It keeps you busy right off the bat and puts you back into the workforce immediately."

The Vincent House serves people with severe and persistent mental illnesses, according to director William McKeever, 52. It's primarily for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and major depression. It was started about a decade ago by Elliott and Dianne Steele, whose daughter was mentally ill. Participants can voluntarily join but need a doctor's referral. Last year, the house served 185 clients. Of those, McKeever said, 66 found work at 37 different area businesses, collectively earning more than $450,000.

Elliott Steele said the problem with treating mental illness is that it creates an idea of a "lifetime patient."

"Many sit at home and watch TV and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee," he said, adding that daily group sessions might help, but they don't encourage participants to get out into the real world. "They come to Vincent House and they start seeing they have value, and they see that they've accomplished something, and they come back. They become skilled and realize their value."

People with mental illness account for one of the largest drains on Social Security, he said, and the Vincent House works to change that.

Now, the organization wants to expand. Sixth Judicial Circuit Public Defender Bob Dillinger is a founding board member of Vincent House and said the program can prevent crime.

"I've seen the lives that it saves and the good that it does," he said. "The same service is needed desperately in Pasco. Right now we have people that drive from New Port Richey to Pinellas (to participate)."

For that to happen, the organization needs help. That's where Vasilios "Billy" Major, 37, comes in. He works for the public defender's office doing social service work, and he's been instrumental in uniting the mental health community in Pasco to open a Vincent House.

At 8 a.m. on May 14, Vincent House plans to hold a "Breakfast of Hope" to raise money and awareness at the St. George Greek Orthodox Church in New Port Richey. Major has formed a committee to look at properties around Pasco. It must be in a safe area with a bus route, he said. The committee is also studying whether any government grants may be available to them.

Major said a Pasco center would ease the stigma associated with mental illness.

"The success they've had with this population is unparalleled in any agency," he said. "It's a completely different approach, and they're able to put people in an employment position, and they respond to it. They find a meaning and a purpose and it's completely therapeutic in a way we don't commonly see."

Scofield, who spent so many years at the mercy of illness, now drives a van at the Vincent House and enjoys the opportunity to spread the word about the organization. Despite his hardships, he credits Vincent House and his faith in God with the turnaround.

"They got me late but look how it's changed my life. My life's full," he said. "You have to be fulfilled in life. If it's fulfilling you have a life second to none."

Contact Jon Silman at (727) 869-6229 or jsilman@tampabay.com

Vincent House for mentally ill seeks to expand in Pasco 03/30/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 30, 2013 1:47pm]

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