Finding Felt Needs: Bob & Joan Geyer
By Ryan Van Cleave
For Joan and Bob Geyer, identifying a felt community need of helping adults living with mental illness has turned into a passionate mission – the new Vincent Academy.
When Sarasota Scene’s editor asked me to write an article on the philanthropy of Joan and Bob Geyer, the interview took place at Vincent Academy (1910 Glengary Street, Sarasota). The moment I got there, the reason for meeting in that location became quite obvious.
Bob & Joan Geyer have contributed greatly to this community, both personally and through the scope of charitable giving by Sunset Auto Group, where Bob serves as President. In the past two years alone, they supported Legal Aid of Manasota, Loveland Village, Hope Family Services, Sheriff’s Activities League, Education Foundation’s Teacher of the Year, and many, many more organizations.
Their latest philanthropic focus, the new Vincent Academy, is one they’re proud of in a way that only parents tend to be. Their pride goes well beyond the funds they provided for the 8,500-square-foot building and the surrounding areas and properties that will include a future wellness center, job center, and garden area. It extends to the fact that the academy’s mission connects with their passion for helping others.
Their pastor once asked: “What community need do you see that’s not being adequately met?” He recommended that people put their efforts where they felt the need of the community is, explains Joan. For the Geyers, they felt that adults living with mental illness are an underserved population that deserves support.
Vincent Academy—named after artist Vincent Van Gogh, whose mental illness caused him to commit suicide at age 37—is a facility where individuals experiencing mental illness receive vocational training and ongoing support. Joan explains, “We know that this model works. People with mental illness can and do get back to work if you create an environment that supports them.”
The soft opening of Vincent Academy occurred this past June. They already have nearly 35 members, though after the official November 9th grand opening, that number should climb far higher. The expectation is to have twice that number of members by the end of the first year of operation.
While there’s significant interest in the academy, it’s not a fit for everyone. All potential members must have a referral from a mental health professional or social worker. The type of mental illnesses that are typically the best fit for the academy’s resources are schizophrenia, depression, PTSD, and bipolar and anxiety disorders. The academy’s idea of “recovery through work” can’t happen unless the member is willing to make an effort. It might be a long, slow process, but it’s a process. Some members come in every single day. Others work to build up their stamina and ability to concentrate, with many never having held a steady job in their life. Getting ready for the rigors of the actual workplace is difficult. But everyone I saw during my visit was interested, engaged, and focused. They wanted to be there.
Joan notes that one member who recently took a vacation with her family told her parents after a few days that “I have to get back. I’m missing school.” That’s the level of commitment being shown.
Take Rima Ghalieh, for example—another current member. “I graduated from high school in 1987,” she explains. “But I couldn’t do college. I had a hard time.” A few months ago, a job counselor told her about Vincent Academy and she jumped at the chance to be part of it. “It’s a great opportunity. A second chance at life. They’ve told me that from what I’m accomplishing here, I could be an administrative assistant.” In addition to working the cash register at the academy’s cafeteria and learning about graphic design, camera use, and computer software through the buffet of high-end technology available to members, she’s currently working as a courtesy clerk at Lucky’s while she finishes her training at Vincent Academy. Her goal? “I’m hoping one day to get a job in computers. Thank God I found this school.”
Bob is incredibly proud that the academy is succeeding, but even more so that there’s sustainability. “That’s so important with a 501(c)(3),” he says. With 40 years in the automotive industry and nine more in banking, few know better than he does about the importance of a sustainable financial plan. Part of that sustainability comes from state funding provided by the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network. Part comes from tuition that members pay, though it’s a sliding scale that adjusts to their financial situation. Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s generous group of donors provide much of the rest. Joan adds, “Many of our donors stress the importance of Vincent Academy being a program that is embraced and supported by the entire community. We completely agree. It’s impressive how much interest the community has shown.”
While the academy is clearly a vital part of the Geyer’s philanthropic efforts, they also own three fully-furnished, centrally-located duplexes which foster kids who are aging out of the system can affordably rent through the Springboard Program. Everyday Blessings Inc., an agency that provides high-quality care to foster sibling groups, serves as the landlord. It also helps the residents create and maintain life skills needed to succeed, from taking out the trash on Monday, to staying in school or keeping a job, to paying bills. This kind of opportunity can be life changing, as it was for a young woman who moved in after living beneath a bridge in Sarasota. “She moved out this past Saturday,” Joan proudly adds, knowing that a change like this is additional progress towards full independence.
Helping others become independent and successful at both work and life—whether it’s foster children or adults with mental illness—is something the Mr. & Mrs. Geyer are committed to. From their perspective, it’s simply addressing the felt need of our community.
For more information about Vincent Academy, please visit vincentsrq.org or call 941.921.9930.
For more information about Gulf Coast Community Foundation, please visit gulfcoastcf.org or call 941.486.4600.
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