In the light-filled office of the soon-to-open Career Center, Vincent Academy Founder Joan Geyer and Executive Director William McKeever reveal blueprints for the rest of the coming Sarasota facility—an 8,500-square-foot building with a yellow and blue color scheme inspired by the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. The design, however, is secondary to the life-changing work that will happen inside the building: vocational training and job placement for those with mental illness.

Slated to open at the year’s end, Vincent Academy will serve as part training ground, part social support system. Members (never “clients” or “patients”) will choose from three different career tracks (culinary arts, arts and communications and community relations), receive training up to five days a week and, eventually, enter into temporary job placements. The combination of intensive training and part-time work experience is in preparation for that ultimate goal: a full-time job with one of Vincent Academy’s local employment partners. It’s an ambitious model, but one with proven results in Pinellas County.

Vincent House, the Pinellas Park-based predecessor of Vincent Academy, has had success through the implementation of its “recovery through work” program and McKeever, a 25-year veteran of the mental health field, hopes to replicate this stellar track record in Sarasota. To date, Vincent House has trained and placed more than 800 members with 67 different employment partners in Pinellas County. Vincent Academy’s custom-built Sarasota location will serve 75 members in its first year with a goal of 200 annual members. Everything in the new complex, from the point-of-sale systems in the culinary arts area to iMacs and video equipment in the arts and communications wing, will be industry-standard so as to better prepare members for the workplace.

McKeever stresses that for people with mental illness, work is generally a neglected consideration. “Traditionally, when we think about mental health, society thinks, ‘Well, they need a lot of treatment, psychiatry [and] medicine,’ and while that’s necessary, it turns someone into a perpetual patient—that’s who they become,” he says. “The unemployment rate is 85 to 90 percent nationwide [for those with mental illness]. What’s the solution?”

The answer, McKeever argues, is Vincent Academy. “We are trying to help people with mental illness lead productive lives. Counseling, therapy and medication aren’t the entire solution. Unless we’re helping people acquire work skills and employment, then we’re not getting them out of those cycles of dependency on the government system,” says McKeever, “Once someone has a job, then [he or she] has a purpose to get out of bed. They have a reason to take their medications, to not self-medicate. They’re less dependent on governmental services, and less likely to become homeless.” This is not to say McKeever believes the traditional treatment model is ineffectual. Vincent House depends on referrals from local mental health organizations. “What Vincent Academy will offer is part of the solution,” he says.

Vincent Academy isn’t Geyer’s first foray into mental health initiatives, either. In 2003, Joan and husband Bob founded Palm Club, an organization with the same vocational-training model as Vincent Academy. The couple managed to keep the lights on for two years before deciding to close, though this setback did not deter them from their dream of expanding opportunities for those with mental illness. A close friend of Vincent House founders Dianne and Elliott Steele, Geyer was a frequent visitor to the Pinellas Park location following Palm Club’s closure. Then just last year, a fortuitous conversation between Geyer and McKeever led to the decision to establish Vincent Academy.

Vincent Academy’s entry onto the Sarasota nonprofit scene will no doubt benefit from the community’s increasing openness towards supporting mental health initiatives. The organization’s founding coincides with the introduction of new programs in the local criminal justice system aimed at helping those with mental illness, among them the Comprehensive Treatment Court (CTC). A program envisioned by Judge Erika Quartermaine, the CTC will divert low-level offenders with mental illness away from jails and instead match them with local mental health care providers who will in turn refer clients to local organizations like Vincent Academy. “We are in this for the long haul and without community partners like Judge Quartermaine and Public Defender Larry Eger, it won’t be sustainable,” says Geyer. “The timing seems to be right this time.”


With Vincent Academy’s opening on the horizon, McKeever and Geyer are looking ahead to how they can ensure its success. They plan to take programming that already works in Pinellas Park and amplify the effectiveness, often through the use of technology. Here are some of the things that will be on offer at Vincent Academy in Sarasota: 

Culinary Arts: Members will learn not only how to prepare delicious, healthy meals for the Vincent Academy community, but also become proficient in the modern technology that is a staple in today’s professional kitchens. “You’re going to have computers in the kitchen so that orders can be placed just like they are in restaurants,” says Geyer. 

Community Relations: This vocational team allows members to gain a variety of business and interpersonal skills that will serve them in administrative and retail roles. In Pinellas Park, members learn administrative skills such as data entry and phone and front-desk reception by performing these tasks for Vincent House itself. Vincent House also has a small store that allows members to learn about retail sales, as will the Sarasota location. 

Arts and Communications: At Vincent House, members in arts and communications fulfill all of the organization’s design needs, from newsletters and marketing materials to ID cards. Members at Vincent Academy will also have the opportunity to learn photography, writing, social media and videography skills, all on top-notch equipment.

Social Gatherings: McKeever plans to have social outings that will allow members from both locations to interact, build solidarity and foster community. As one Vincent House member said of the new Sarasota location, “We’re going to be their extended family.”