FORT PIERCE — A Martin County nonprofit that fights youth mental health and addiction through job training is expanding its reach on the Treasure Coast.
ELEVATOR projectbased in Palm City and serving more than 350 teens ages 14-19, expects its new Fort Pierce location at 1009 Delaware Ave. be operational by mid-February.
In its first year, the organization hopes to add another 100 members to its lineup, CEO Bob Zaccheo said.
“I know the population is there,” Zaccheo said. “Fortunately, we’ll be here now so we can help.”
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Project LIFT has been trying to expand into St. Lucie County for about two years, Zaccheo said, but the decision was made all the more urgent amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As schools closed and social activities stalled, the nonprofit saw a 37% increase in services from March to July 2020 and successfully intervened in seven suicide attempts, Zaccheo told TCPalm last year.
At its peak, about 50 St. Lucie County teenagers struggling with mental health or addiction issues would come to Project LIFT for help.
“For me, mental health, suicide and drug overdoses were the real pandemic,” Zaccheo said. “Without minimizing the pandemic (COVID-19), but in adolescents we have seen an incredible decline in mental health functioning and an exponential growth in drug overdoses, and that needed to be addressed.
The LIFT project began building networks throughout the region, securing various grants and a very generous donation: the 7,500 square foot property, which was provided by longtime Fort Pierce resident and businessman Charlie Hayek. business.
In total, Zaccheo estimated the expansion cost $450,000. At full capacity, with the goal of serving 200 teens in the new location, he added that the annual budget should be around $750,000.
The nonprofit is also expanding the skills training it offers, Zaccheo said, focusing on occupations in Fort Pierce’s booming maritime industry, such as welding, fabrication, catering and boat repair.
“There is research that supports that nearly 70% of people who lose their jobs in our communities lose their jobs because of a mental health issue,” he said. “So our challenge and our goal is to use social-emotional learning in a real store, with a real store setting and a real store exit.”
The long-term goal is to replace substance abuse or mental health issues with vocational competence. Not only is it a convenient outlet — where teenagers get paid for their work — Zaccheo said it could also turn into a career.
The data shows it works, Zaccheo said. About 87% of teens in Project LIFT successfully complete the sober program and 72% never re-enter the justice system, he added. In addition, there is an average increase of $13,000 in family income.
“The benefit to the community is tenfold,” he said. “It keeps the juvenile justice system from getting bogged down. It’s an intergenerational poverty reduction strategy… There are just several different tentacles that the LIFT project puts in place that de-stigmatize mental health in the process of road.”
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