1. Pasco

'It's a game changer': New Vincent House in Pasco County to help people with mental illness find jobs in the community

HUDSON — At 19 years old, Justin Shea was suffering symptoms of schizoaffective disorder. He was hospitalized twice and battled a disease that he said transformed him from a popular, athletic guy in high school to someone who barely left the house.

He needed help.

Shea connected with a psychiatrist and started attending support groups, he said, and then found Vincent House in Pinellas Park. The community center helped him regain confidence and enter the workforce.

"Recovery is possible for all people," said Shea, now 35. "Vincent House gives you that stepping stone."

Next year, organizers plan to open a Pasco County location of Vincent House. The ground-breaking in Hudson for the $2.5 million project took place June 24 alongside staff from the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, a partner in the creation of and fundraising for the center.

There are Vincent House locations in Pinellas Park and Spring Hill. The centers provide transitional employment placement to help people with mental illness get back into the job market and restore routine and purpose to their lives.

The new center is especially welcome in Pasco County where mental health services are limited.

"It's a game changer when they get things up and running," said Doug Webster, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Pasco County and a licensed clinical social worker.

Vincent House's rehabilitation program is based on the Clubhouse International model that supports people living with mental illness by offering them "memberships" in the community-based centers and trains them for jobs, according to its website.

The Vincent House has training at an on-site kitchen, business center, bank and other training activities. Staff members help connect members to businesses that are hiring for entry-level positions.

Staffers go to the workplaces first to learn how to do the jobs, and then train the members. The staffers also fill in for members if they're not able to make it to work.

Employers from Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties are hiring Vincent House members, including the Pasco-Pinellas Judicial Circuit Public Defender's Office, CareerSource in Hernando County and the Contractors Institute, which offers contractor license examination preparation.

The Pasco County Housing Authority also hires people from Vincent House. Its executive director, Terrie Staubs, said working with Vincent House has been a positive experience. The Housing Authority has employed four members since March to work in janitorial and administrative roles. She said the center's service is important for Pasco County residents.

"There's a need out there," Staubs said.

Vincent House founders Dianne and Elliott Steele were self-described mental health advocates when their daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After attending a National Alliance on Mental Illness conference in Washington, D.C., in 2001, they learned of the Clubhouse model and knew they wanted to start one.

"It helps people to feel wanted and needed," Dianne Steele said.

At the Pinellas Park location, which opened in 2003, about 40 people attend the center daily, and it has more than 1,000 lifetime members, the founders said.

The Spring Hill location opened in 2017 and has a daily attendance of 17 and 100 lifetime members.

The founders hope the Hudson location will have a daily attendance of 50 people once it's up and running.

After years of support from Vincent House, Shea landed a job in 2014, working full-time as the cultural facilities events supervisor for the city of Gulfport. He oversees a department with a budget of nearly $500,000 that manages the casino, theater and special events programs.

He also manages a transitional employment position in the casino filled by a Vincent House member.

"Vincent House inspired me to go to that next level," he said.

Vincent House Pinellas County is at 4801 78th Ave., in Pinellas Park and can be reached at (727) 541-0321. Vincent House Hernando County is at 7473 Forest Oaks Blvd. in Spring Hill and can be reached at (352) 701-0778.

Contact Sarah Verschoor at Follow @SarahVerschoor.