Vincent House operates much like a small self-contained city. Mike Parker, left, and Mike Taddeo, prepare a meal in the Vincent House kitchen.
PINELLAS PARK – In 1993, Elliott and Dianne Steele’s youngest daughter was in the prime of her life.
She’d recently graduated from high school and had embarked on her own for the first time, attending college away from home. The popular student was excited, effervescent, happy. And her parents couldn’t be more proud.
But six months into her college career, the Steeles received a phone call that no parent ever wants to get: Their daughter began to exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia and she was unable to care for herself.
“This changed not just her life, but our lives forever,” Elliott Steele said.
The couple, which lives in Indian Shores, watched their daughter struggle not only with her illness, but also with the subpar mental health services available to her in Pinellas County. They stood by her side the entire time, fighting for her, rooting for her.
Over the years, they evolved from her strongest supporters to tireless advocates for all those with psychiatric needs throughout the entire county, as well as across the state and the country. They became heavily involved with the regional and Florida chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
And in 2003, inspired by their daughter, they opened the doors to the Vincent House in Pinellas Park.
Now the nonprofit organization celebrates 10 years as a restorative community, using the idea of “recovery through work” to help those who struggle with mental illness to realize their potential and to move beyond the boundaries that grew around them from the stigma of their disease.
Armed with a culinary background working for Hyatt Corp. as well as a law degree, Elliott eventually worked his way up to the position of administrative director of support services at the University Community Hospital in Tampa. Dianne owned Steele Animal Hospital in Seminole.
In 1999, he quit his job and she sold the veterinary clinic. They decided it was time to focus their efforts on mental illness advocacy full-time.
“It was time to do something more,” Elliott said.
There are more than 800,000 people with “severe and persistent” mental illness in the state, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, he added. “More than 40,000 of them are in Pinellas. And they’re not receiving the treatment they need.”
At the time, Florida ranked 47 among all 50 states when it came to per capita mental health funding. Today, it ranks 51, Elliott said. “Even below Puerto Rico.”
The concept for Vincent House is based on similar clubhouse programs in other states. Those who join are members, not patients, and it focuses on creating a local community center for those with mental illness, revitalizing their hopes and dreams while preparing them for real life work experiences.
The couple teamed up with Bob Dillinger, public defender for Pinellas and Pasco counties, to obtain the funding they needed to create such an environment.
“[Dillinger’s] a very strong advocate for people with mental illness,” Elliott said. “He’s an advocate for people, period.”
It took nearly two years, but their relentless grassroots efforts earned them the state funding they needed to open a clubhouse in Pinellas.
On Jan. 20, 2003, doors to Vincent House, which at first operated out of a former sub shop in a local strip mall, opened.
“Literally, the fridge at the time was an ice chest,” Elliott said, “and there was a grill in the back yard that we cooked on.”
But they had to start somewhere, Elliott said, and the members began to trickle in.
“We were much smaller then,” Dianne said, “but it was the same basic idea: we wanted to help people transform their lives.”
During the summer of 2005, having outgrown its location, Vincent House moved to its permanent home at 4801 78th Ave. With around 250 active members – around 60 of them dropping in daily – and 600 lifetime members, it wasn’t long before even this new 2,800-square-foot space was too small. But they were receiving less and less money from the state each year. So the nonprofit began a fundraising campaign, raising more than $1 million to build a 5,000 square foot addition to the building.
Looking back at its humble beginnings, Dillinger is struck by how far Vincent House has come.
“More than a decade ago, [it] started in a small strip store. It now has a beautiful state-of-the-art facility,” he said. “What has not changed is the delivery of hope to those with mental illness. Without hope, people will not succeed in life and may actually become a societal liability.”
How they help
Vincent House operates much like a small, self-contained city.
There’s a bank, a cafeteria, a thrift store, a business and media center.
Its members run all of these areas. They prepare the meals. They answer the phones. They run the retail thrift shop. One group creates and designs newsletters for the nonprofit.
The tasks and duties they learn while on the job prepare them for working in the real world, Dianne said.
“They come in with no hope, no confidence, no self-esteem,” she said. “This builds them back up. Working is rehabilitation for them.”
The nonprofit helps them utilize their newfound skills beyond the walls of Vincent House. The organization teams up with local businesses to help its members find first transitional employment (sometimes staff members even train on the job with them to make for a smoother transition) and eventually permanent, independent jobs.
Vincent House also assists members in meeting education goals, whether it’s earning a GED or applying to colleges, and helps them in other areas, such as finding housing.
New members walk through the door each day. The Steeles, amazed by the transformations they see, can’t help but think back to their own experience of finding help for their daughter.
“We constantly see family come in with a son or daughter, or an uncle, aunt, brother, or sister,” Dianne said. “I think that if at the time such a program existed for our daughter, if we had a place like this to go to, if we had been able to walk into a facility like this and be treated with dignity, things would have been much different.”
Who they’ve helped
There is no one mold for a member of Vincent House.
The men and women who seek help from the organization range in age from teens to seniors. Some are high school dropouts, and some hold graduate degrees. Some are homeless and have lived on the streets; others live with their families or are successful professionals.
No matter their background, all of them rely on the programs at Vincent House to help them overcome their illness and get back on their feet.
Joe Stabile, 57, of Pinellas Park, who has come to Vincent House from the very beginning, puts it bluntly: the nonprofit quite literally saved his life.
“The bottom line is, if I never came here, I’d probably be out on the streets, or dead somewhere,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal place. I’ve been blessed to come here.”
An addict, Stabile has been clean for some time now, and rents a place with several other Vincent House members.
Chiquita Ivory, 35, of Pinellas Park, found the Vincent House three years ago, when no other program seemed to be helping.
“Coming here made me want to be a better person,” she said. “It has helped me to build my self-esteem, and to grow and to be the mature person I’ve become.”
Today she holds two jobs, and loves them both. This past November, at one of her jobs she was recognized as Employee of the Month.
Ron Ritchie, 61, of St. Petersburg, felt unemployable when he first joined Vincent House six years ago. Today he works as a transportation specialist for a local hospital, a job he was only able to get because of his work at Vincent House making pickups and deliveries.
“I’m really impressed by this place,” he said. “It’s something really special.”
What the future holds
As Vincent House celebrates a decade of helping individuals with mental illnesses, Elliott and Dianne Steele are preparing to step down from their positions of executive director and assistant director, respectively.
“Every place needs some new blood every once in a while,” Dianne said.
The couple will remain active with the organization though. But they’ll be handing leadership over to William McKeever, program coordinator, who is passionate about Vincent House and its work in the community.
“We really do what no other organization does in the community and perhaps in the state,” he said. “And that’s help people who really live on the fringes of society.”
The organization’s big project moving forward is a possible expansion to Pasco County.
The Steeles say they’d like to see a Vincent House in each of Tampa Bay’s counties, but Pasco needs it the most.
“There’s so little up there for those with mental illness,” Dianne said.
A board for the potential Pasco Vincent House has already been organized, and weekly, sometimes daily, discussions, on making it happen are under way.
Vincent House also continues to seek donations and alternative funding for its work, as the state provides less and less funding each year.
Its new “Sponsor a Life” program allows individuals to pledge a monthly gift to help provide scholarships to potential members who would otherwise be unable to afford the monthly dues. And on Feb. 2, the nonprofit will host its Purses 4 Hope sale. All proceeds from the sale of new and nearly new purses and accessories will benefit the organization.