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Vincent Academy, facility to help those with mental illness, opens Friday

By Carrie Seidman
for the Herald-Tribune

Vincent Academy will offer vocational training, job placement and support

SARASOTA COUNTY — More than 10 years ago, Joan Geyer was forced to close the Palm Club, a fledgling nonprofit she’d started almost single-handedly in a tiny two-bedroom bungalow to help individuals with mental illness recover and reintegrate in the community through employment.

As crushed as she was by the failure to garner the support necessary to go on, the hardest part of the closure was breaking the news to the 30 or so club members, who were anticipating being able to find employment and acceptance once again.

“When you close a nonprofit, you have to give referrals,” recalled Geyer who, with her husband, Bob, owns the Sunset Automotive Group. “And when I had to close the Palm Club, I had nowhere to send people but back to where they had come from.”

That painful memory was countered this week with the “soft” opening of Vincent Academy, a newly completed facility still smelling of fresh carpet and paint that will pursue a similar mission, but on a grander scale. The Geyers provided the money for the 8,500-square-foot building — and various properties nearby that will house a job center, wellness center and garden — and brought together a myriad of public and private partners to facilitate the ongoing operations of the organization, which promotes a “recovery through work” philosophy.

“There were times I didn’t think it would happen,” said Geyer Thursday, a day after a massive cleaning effort by volunteers and before today’s official opening to members. “And now that it’s open, I just want to be here to take it all in — to soak up the energy, the atmosphere and the opportunities you see for people. They’re going to have to figure out a way to keep me away.”

Vocational training

Vincent Academy is modeled after Vincent House, a similar facility in Pinellas Park. (Both are named after the artist Vincent van Gogh, whose mental illness led to suicide at 37). It will offer members vocational training in three areas — culinary arts and hospitality services, graphic arts and design and community relations (which includes everything from marketing to telephone reception to data entry). After training, staff will find and support employment placements for members at local businesses. The mutually beneficial arrangement will provide employers with a steady stream of trained labor and workers with the support they need to succeed.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate for those with serious mental illnesses — such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress and major depression — is close to 90 percent. Without a program like Vincent Academy’s, many individuals so diagnosed end up dependent on public assistance, or caught in a redundant cycle of hospitalizations or incarceration.

Detailed planning went into construction of the new building, just south of downtown Sarasota and west of Tamiami Trail. The careful consideration of everything from fixtures to paint color is evident in a tour of the upscale facility, surrounded by a paver parking lot and fronted by a columned entrance way. Bob Geyer, who employs hundreds at his auto dealership, calls it “a workplace and a very different atmosphere” than what one might find at a traditional mental health facility.

‘Love, dedication, teamwork’

There is a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen that would be the envy of any chef, with its walk-in refrigerator and freezer, gleaming stainless steel surfaces and array of industrial appliances, from a hydrator to a $1,300 mixer. The areas devoted to graphic arts and community relations have 17-foot-high ceilings with natural lighting, banks of top-of-the line computers and “smart screens” for sharing group projects. The lighting fixtures in the expansive dining room are in the shape of artist palettes and the reception area features a giant fish aquarium and a cluster of overhead lights that evoke van Gogh’s famous painting, “The Starry Night.”

William McKeever, who was executive director at Vincent House and has moved south to lead the Sarasota facility, called the opening “the culmination of 2 ½ years of planning and work.”

“For me it’s a combination of incredible excitement and gratitude and on the other hand, the butterflies you get when the curtain opens,” he said. “The day has finally arrived and we’re ready. But there’s that ‘Am I really ready for this?’”

Continuing grants from the Central Florida Behavioral Network and the Able Trust; another from the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation that helped underwrite the costs of the kitchen; and a matching grant from the Steinwachs Family Foundation to implement technology have gotten this unique public/private partnership, the first of its kind in the state, off to a strong start, McKeever said. But he emphasized that its continuing success will rely on efforts by individuals and organizations throughout the community to support its ongoing operations and programs.

“We are blessed to have this beautiful facility,” he said, “but Vincent Academy cannot be an island. What will make this endeavor a success is the love, dedication and teamwork that everyone will put in. In order for us to fulfill our purpose, it will depend on building a community of members, families and community members and a collaboration with all the providers, from clinical treatment to supportive housing, to law enforcement and the public defender’s office. By no means do we replace all the other supports in the community.”

McKeever said Vincent Academy is also looking to build partnerships with local businesses, “from Mom and Pops to large operations,” that can provide entry level jobs in a variety fields for its members when they are ready to re-enter the workforce.

‘Change the conversation’

Since plans for Vincent Academy were publicly announced just over a year ago, about two dozen local individuals have been making the trek to the Pinellas Park facility several times a week to begin their training before the Sarasota building was finished. Philip Boyer, a vocational instructor from Sarasota who has been providing transportation for many of them, is looking forward to “a shorter commute.”

“But more than that, I’m looking forward to those members transitioning to Vincent Academy,” Boyer said. “Having them know the day-to-day way we operate is huge to us starting off down here. We want to do as well as they do up at Vincent House, but also to create a unique culture here.”

Paul Fredell, a chef who has worked in fine dining establishments and personal catering, said he has “absolutely no complaints” about the well-equipped kitchen and is looking forward to partnering with local farms and purveyors of sustainable, organic and nutritious food, as well as harvesting from the garden that is planned for the empty lot next door, to create two meals, as well as snacks, every day.

He will brainstorm with members to produce a unique menu daily for breakfast and lunch “based around wellness.” Fredell’s interest is not only professional but personal. His brother, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has achieved a complete remission from his illness, in large part due to an intense emphasis on maintaining a healthy diet.

For the next few months, Vincent Academy will be open to members Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday for interested community members who’d like to take a tour and learn more about the organization. McKeever says the facility’s doors are always open to volunteers and family members supporting their loved one’s recovery efforts.

Geyer says it is the overwhelming “support of family and community” she sees now that will ensure Vincent Academy becomes a place where dignity, respect and acceptance help to remove the stigma of a mental health diagnosis.

“One of the things I hope Vincent Academy can do is change the conversation, to one of dignity and understanding that this is an illness and we collectively have a responsibility to make things better than they are,” she said. “I hope, someday, someone who has recovered from a mental illness can be as proud of saying they are a survivor as someone who has had cancer. So come in here and have lunch, volunteer, help in the garden, teach a seminar. Change the conversation. Be part of the solution.”


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