Mental health assistance isn’t typically an electric co-op responsibility, but one Florida co-op sees it differently.
Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative has embarked on a mission to build Vincent Academy, a facility that will provide mental health assistance for residents of four counties the co-op serves.
“This is an issue that is plaguing our communities,” David Lambert, manager of member relations, said bluntly of the plight of people living with mental illness, many of whom cannot get the help they desperately need.
Erasing the Stigma
“If you’ve got cancer, there’s a ton of treatments for you. But mental health has such a stigma attached to it,” said Lambert.
Florida ranks near the bottom of the list for mental health funding per capita, he said, adding that “Hernando County ranks almost dead last.”
It’s an issue that’s important to Lambert, who—among the many other hats he wears—is president of the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) Hernando chapter. Some three years ago, Withlacoochee stepped in to assist the group when it was broke and facing eviction. Today, NAMI Hernando operates six days a week and has helped more than 600 people.
The experience made the co-op aware of the mental health issues facing so many of its members.
At a NAMI Hernando graduation ceremony, Lambert met a woman who asked him, “What’s next? I want to go back to work.”
He understood her concern, but didn’t have an answer.
An aide to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., suggested Lambert visit Vincent House in Pinellas Park, Florida, which helps people recovering from mental illness become employed in the community.
“It was just amazing,” said Lambert. “So we set out on a path to bring the program to our service territory.”
A Second Chance at Life
Like its sister facility, Vincent Academy focuses on recovery through work. It helps people get their high school diploma or GED; many go on to undergraduate and graduate studies.
“It has social activities where folks can come and get job training skills, social skills, organizational skills,” said Lambert. Vincent Academy then partners with local businesses to employ people.
Lambert is impressed with Vincent House’s track record. He said that in 2016, its members earned $750,000 in Pinellas County. Since its founding in 2003, the figure is over $5 million.
“It takes people that they said would never ever have a chance at life and it gets them back in society, back in the workforce, back functioning. It gives them a life back,” he said.
On June 5, a temporary Vincent Academy—run by the folks who operate Vincent House—opened in a strip mall. Around the same time, Gov. Rick Scott approved $1 million in state funding for Vincent Academy. Fundraising efforts have added another $300,000 with about $700,000 to go. Hernando County donated a seven and a half acre plot of land for the permanent facility.
“Our goal,” said Lambert “is to go to construction at the first of the year.”
Opioids, Alcohol and Illness
“The opioid epidemic is plaguing rural America,” said Lambert, and Dade City-based Withlacoochee’s service territory isn’t exempt.
“Seventy percent of the people who are chronically homeless have a mental illness,” added Lambert, who also chairs the Pasco County Housing Authority, which will be dedicating Section 8 vouchers to help those folks.
“People who are living with a mental illness typically abuse alcohol and drugs. And they abuse opioids.”
‘A Lot of Need’
For Withlacoochee, helping with a project like this is as normal a course of business as changing out a transformer.
The co-op already helped turn around Lacoochee, Florida, a hardscrabble community it serves, by building a community center complete with a medical clinic, as well as Habitat for Humanity homes.
It may sound like a lot for a co-op to be taking on, but for Billy E. Brown, executive vice president and general manager, it’s just another day.
“Of course we’re in the electric business, providing efficient and reliable service to our members. But also, we think it’s our responsibility to do whatever we can to improve the lives of the people in the communities that we serve,” said Brown.
“There is a lot of need out there. Once we get through with this one, we’ll find another project.”
Brown credits his co-op’s strong relationships with lawmakers at the local, state and federal level, as well as the commitment of Withlacoochee’s staff.
“We’ve got a great bunch of people,” said Brown. “I have to be careful sometimes not to tell them about a project I’m thinking about because it might get done before I make up my mind.”
Michael W. Kahn is a staff writer for NRECA.