The Story of Serenoa House
Beginning in 2012 and for the next two years, a dedicated member of our community, Jackie Davis, visited several peer respites in Georgia and California researching the origin stories of some of the country's few established peer respites. With help from another mover and shaker in the community, Jim Probert, director of the Counseling and Wellness Center at the University of Florida, a grant application was submitted in April of 2014 to a local non-for-profit that assists with community development. Eight months later, representatives responded and we began discussing funds that could launch such an organization. The summer and fall passed. In January of 2015, Jackie and Jim had their first face-to-face meeting with representatives from the fund. The feedback was positive, so Jackie and Jim were tasked with creating a board of directors, a business plan, and scheduling a follow-up meeting.
It took three months to assemble the founding board which first convened on March 12, 2015. Attending were Mary-Ellen Cross, Jackie Davis, Karen Johnson, Robert Hutchinson, and Shelly Wilson; individuals who had agreed to be on the board but were unable to attend this meeting included Rory Causseaux and Jim Probert. Our ranks were bolstered the following month when Roseann Walker joined the board! It was at this point, in April of 2015, when our nascent organization began looking for a site and investigating training programs for staff. It was also at this point that we made strides in blueprinting a development plan, a mission statement, by-laws, job descriptions, and formal operational procedures.
Over the summer of that year, we reached other milestones: the fundraising video was shot, we became a 501.3c non-profit, and the decision was made to host a “soft opening” by hiring a director and beginning to offer groups at a supportive community hub that was willing to donate space: the United Church of Gainesville. The budget for the “soft opening” was submitted to the Mental Wellness Fund. We interviewed for director's position and hired our first executive director: Phil Schulman.
That fall, the focus was location location location! Significant work was done investigating sites. Builders and inspectors were constantly consulted, and raising funds for the initial launch was a priority since money for a down payment to purchase the location was not part of the money from the original donation. Our board of directors expanded to nine members, and we finally settled on a site at 728 E. University Ave. It was originally the Gertrude Robertson McIntosh House, a yellow Victorian house in the historic district of downtown Gainesville.
Over the winter, we began offering support groups and opened an office at the United Church of Gainesville. Fundraising continued, permits were pulled, and we insured the property. We were finally able to purchase of the house in the Summer of 2016, which launched a whole series of accomplishments: the parking lot was paved, the interior was significantly renovated while maintaining respect for the historic quality of the house, and (possibly the most important milestone for homeowners in Florida) A.C. was installed! Staff was interviewed, hired, and trained to assist with the support groups and social activities at the United Church of Gainesville. We began with the goal of opening at the end of the Summer but an increase in the scope and cost of renovations delayed this by eight months. The launching of the Gainesville Peer Respite culminated in the planned “soft” opening in March of 2017 and with the wiping of brow-sweat, our doors officially opened in April.
Five days a week we began having overnight guests, hosting groups, hosting regular social events, and operating our warm-line service. We also worked to develop relationships with other mental health resources in the area by co-hosting events, offering space for a weekly NAMI meeting, and exploring other opportunities that would create a stronger net of services. In the winter of 2017, thanks to a CAP grant, our staff grew significantly and we were able to stay open to guests six days out of every week. In a culmination of the efforts of our community, we were honored with a Beautification Award from the City of Gainesville in April of 2018.