Project LIFT, teen mental health and vocational training nonprofit, expands to Fort Pierce

·3 min read

FORT PIERCE — A Martin County nonprofit that works to combat youth mental health and substance abuse through vocational skills training is expanding its reach on the Treasure Coast.

Project LIFT, based in Palm City and serving over 350 teenagers aged 14 to 19, expects its new Fort Pierce location at 1009 Delaware Ave. to be operational by mid-February.

In its first year, the organization hopes to add another 100 members to its programming, said CEO Bob Zaccheo.

"I know the population is there," Zaccheo said. "Fortunately, we'll be there now to be able to help out."

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Shiniece Hayes, 14, of Port St. Lucie, learns carpentry skills cutting through plywood with a jigsaw to make a scissors for Christmas ornaments for the Palm City Chamber of Commerce, at the Project LIFT offices on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, in Palm City. "I get to get out of my house, I get to learn something and meet new people," Hayes said. "It helps with anger, and learning new ways to cope, because of my therapist." Project LIFT is expanding to launch their services, mental health counseling for at-risk teens through vocational training, to Fort Pierce.
Shiniece Hayes, 14, of Port St. Lucie, learns carpentry skills cutting through plywood with a jigsaw to make a scissors for Christmas ornaments for the Palm City Chamber of Commerce, at the Project LIFT offices on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, in Palm City. "I get to get out of my house, I get to learn something and meet new people," Hayes said. "It helps with anger, and learning new ways to cope, because of my therapist." Project LIFT is expanding to launch their services, mental health counseling for at-risk teens through vocational training, to Fort Pierce.

Project LIFT has been working 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 shuttered and social activities stalled, the nonprofit saw a 37% increase in services from March to July 2020 and successfully intervened on seven suicide attempts, Zaccheo told TCPalm last year.

At its peak, about 50 St. Lucie County teens struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues were commuting to Project LIFT for assistance.

"To me, mental health, suicide and drug overdose was the real pandemic," Zaccheo said. "Not to minimize the (COVID-19) pandemic, but amongst teenagers, we saw an incredible decrease in mental health functioning and an exponential growth in drug overdose, and that had to be addressed."

Project LIFT began networking throughout the area, securing various grants and one very generous donation: The 7,500-square-foot property, which was provided by longtime Fort Pierce resident and businessman Charlie Hayek.

In total, Zaccheo estimated the expansion cost $450,000. At capacity, with the goal of serving 200 teenagers at the new location, he added the yearly budget should be around $750,000.

Micha Kelley, the tiny home constructor at Project LIFT, helps guide Gabriella Torres, 14, of Port St. Lucie, with using a circular saw for a project at the Project LIFT offices on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, in Palm City. "I'm the tiny home constructor we work on everything to do with construction, building these two tiny homes out here," Kelley said. "Everything from start to finish. I'm really thankful to be here, growing up unfortunate myself, I'm glad to help others out so that they can get ahead in life."
Micha Kelley, the tiny home constructor at Project LIFT, helps guide Gabriella Torres, 14, of Port St. Lucie, with using a circular saw for a project at the Project LIFT offices on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, in Palm City. "I'm the tiny home constructor we work on everything to do with construction, building these two tiny homes out here," Kelley said. "Everything from start to finish. I'm really thankful to be here, growing up unfortunate myself, I'm glad to help others out so that they can get ahead in life."

The nonprofit is also expanding the vocational skills training it offers, Zaccheo said, focusing on trades in the marine industry booming in Fort Pierce such as welding, manufacturing, boat restoration and repair.

"There's research out there that supports nearly 70% of the people who lose their jobs in our communities lose their job because of a mental health issue," he said. "So our challenge and our lens is to use social-emotional learning in a real shop, with real shop setting and a real shop output."

The long-term goal is to replace substance abuse or mental health issues with a trade skill. Not only is it a hands-on outlet — where teenagers are being paid for their work — Zaccheo said it could also turn into a career.

Data shows it's working, Zaccheo said. About 87% of Project LIFT teenagers successfully complete the programming sober, and 72% never reenter the court system, he added. Moreover, there's an average $13,000 increase 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 alleviation strategy…There's just several different tentacles Project LIFT puts out there that's destigmatizing mental health along the way."

Catie Wegman is TCPalm's community and real estate reporter. You can keep up with Catie on Twitter @Catie_Wegman, on Facebook @catiewegman1 and email her catie.wegman@tcpalm.com.

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This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: St. Lucie County mental health nonprofit, vocational training expands

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