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  1. Florida

Dolores Castaldo made a home for people who needed one

She opened Benedict Haven for her son and others with mental illness

David Beede was among the first to visit his future home on 72nd Ave. N, so of course, he got to pick his bedroom. He chose one on the west side.

For the first time in years, Phyllis Beede felt relief.

Her son had a safe, structured place to live in St. Petersburg, where he could avoid the cycle of hospital, homelessness and jail that so many people living with mental illness face.

For the next 18 years, Benedict Haven was home. He lived with seven other men who also had severe mental illnesses and needed around-the-clock care.

They got it, plus outings, family dinners and their own recliners, thanks to the work of Dolores Castaldo.

Mrs. Castaldo helped open Benedict Haven in 2000 because she hadn’t been able to find the right home for her son, who has schizophrenia.

She died of natural causes on July 3. She was 88.

***

Mrs. Castaldo was the daughter of Italian immigrants and grew up in Brooklyn. The mother of two spent 35 years as a dental hygienist.

In 1998, at a meeting for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Pinellas County, she stood up and said she wanted to do something about the limited housing options for people with mental illnesses.

Was anybody else interested?

Judy Turnbaugh, whose brother was ill, spoke up and soon joined Castaldo in creating Benedict Haven.

It was tough to get funding and approval to build a residential treatment facility in a neighborhood. But Mrs. Castaldo, Turnbaugh said, had this way of convincing people – to give money, to approve grants, to volunteer.

And she got the help, at least for awhile.

From the St. Petersburg Times, March 26, 2000

Mrs. Castaldo, Beede and Turnbaugh had all seen their loved ones’ lives in other assisted living facilities. People smoked all day and watched TV. They had no activities. They could check themselves in and out. Some places even closed in the afternoons, leaving residents to wander the streets.

“At Benedict Haven, we supported them 24/7,” said Anthony Dudley, who started as the home’s social program coordinator and worked there for 13 years.

Residents had good food. They had privacy. They had activities that got them involved in the community. They had steady staff, like Dudley, whom they trusted.

It was run like a family, said Turnbaugh, who served as the board president for several years.

And Mrs. Castaldo was like everyone’s mother.

Family members, including Mrs. Castaldo, took turns each week preparing dishes to share with the house. Mrs. Castaldo always made her son’s favorite, which was anything Italian – spaghetti, sausages, pasta salad.

“She always made enough for everybody,” Dudley said.

***

Funding Benedict Haven was never easy. Mrs. Castaldo and her board held fundraisers, applied for grants and hosted a Valentine’s dinner and dance each year.

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave Mrs. Castaldo Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross, an award given to lay people who worked in service to others.

Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg took over running Benedict Haven in 2012, but six years later, it announced it would close the facility “due to financial constraints,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Turnbaugh wrote to the diocese, outlining the serious problems the closure would create.

“Will they end up adding to our homeless population?” she said of the residents. “Will they be sent to some other facilities that are so horrible you would not put your worst enemy in? Will their mental illness decompensate, sending them in and out of hospitals? Where will they get their medications and have staff ensure they are taking them? Will they become easy marks for drug dealers and other seedy characters on the street?”

Dudley felt shocked.

“She kept apologizing to me,” he said of Mrs. Castaldo, who worried both about where her son and the other men living at Benedict Haven would go and where staff would find work.

“It broke her heart when it closed,” he said.

When it was time for Beede’s son to move out, she couldn’t find anyplace like it.

“So he is at home with me,” said Beede, who is 80.

She’s still looking for a place as good as Benedict Haven.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about the recently deceased in our community? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

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