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Sometimes, every day is payday

Most people have jobs to make money. But for those laboring with mental illness, like Ed Wohlford, the rewards of working go far beyond a check.

LANE DeGREGORY
Published August 15, 2004

He worries all the way to the bus stop. What if I'm too slow? What if the guys at work are just pretending to like me? What if I forget and put the salami on top of the pepperoni?

He shuffles along the sidewalk, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his gray cardigan, blue eyes scanning the ground through square glasses. His shoulders hunch up as if he were trying to disappear inside himself.

What if I miss the bus? What if I weigh out too much turkey? What if no one talks to me? What if everyone talks to me? What if I get fired?

He has been fired before, 15 years ago. Or was it 20? He's 39 and can't really remember the last time he held a job.

This time is going to be different, though. He promised. He promised everyone: his mom, his new boss at the sub shop, the guys at the clubhouse. He has been taking his meds. He's working hard to make this work.

He has been on the job now, well, this will be his ninth day. Today is the last Friday in July.

Edwin Wohlford's first payday.

* * *

To save time this morning, he showered last night. He set two alarm clocks, for 5 and 5:30 a.m., and got up before either went off. At 6:40 a.m., he left the Clearwater condo he shares with his mom.

Now he's slumped on a bench, waiting and worrying, tugging on his black ball cap. He puts on his headphones and turns his Walkman up loud. Sometimes, when the classic rock is cranking, it swallows the noise in his head.

At 7:12 a.m., the bus ambles up. Wohlford slouches into a seat near the front. He lost his driver's license years ago. After a few minutes, he has to transfer to another route. He gets out to wait on the shoulder of U.S. 19. Construction here. What if that backhoe dumps a load of dirt on me?

For Wohlford, who has schizophrenia and paranoia, just about anything can seem scary.

He rides the bus an hour and a half. Gets off at Vincent House in Pinellas Park, a clubhouse for people with mental illnesses. He stumbles through the door, shouting.

"I lost my glasses. I lost my darn glasses!" Wohlford's voice is always loud. But when he's upset, he bellows. Elliott Steele, a co-founder of Vincent House, comes over and claps a hand on his shoulder.

"How do you see without them? Can you work?" Steele asks.

"I don't know," Wohlford moans, patting his jeans pocket. "I don't know!"

Then, as quickly as it began, the crisis ends. "Oh, here they are," Wohlford says, untangling the glasses from inside his cardigan. "I was worrying what if I couldn't see to make the subs."

Every morning, before going to work at the sub shop, Wohlford stops by Vincent House to do some cleaning. He vacuums the dining area, scrubs the bathrooms, washes the dishes piled in the kitchen sink.

At 9:35 he pulls on his new shirt from Firehouse Subs.

"I'm ready," he says. But he doesn't see the counselor who is supposed to drive him to work.

"What if I'm late?"

* * *

In high school, before he knew what was wrong, Wohlford was sure all the kids hated him. He'd get to worrying about it, and his heart would start fluttering, and he'd get so upset he'd have to walk away. Or stand still and close his eyes and try to breathe slowly. Or collapse. Sometimes he collapsed.

When he was 20, living in California, he started shutting himself in his room. In the dark. For days. Finally, he dragged himself to a doctor and got diagnosed.

"He's never been able to live on his own," his mother, Patty, says. "He lived under a bridge for a while. But I don't count that."

When Wohlford was 22, his mom moved him to Florida. For more than a decade, he went to day treatment in Pinellas Park. He played cards and did puzzles and shared during group therapy. He earned Monopoly money for participating. Every Friday, he cashed it in at the snack bar. Save $100 and you got yourself a Coke.

"He kept saying he wanted to work and earn real money," Patty Wohlford says. "But no one knew how to help him."

Just after Christmas, she found a listing for a place she thought might be good for her son. Vincent House, a nonprofit clubhouse in a strip mall on 49th Street N, is named for the painter Van Gogh, who suffered from mental illness. It opened in January 2003 and has seven staff and 195 members. People go there to make connections, gain confidence and learn life skills: balancing a checkbook, working on a computer, cooking in a commercial kitchen. Members can come five days a week, from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. On Saturday they have picnics and go bowling. Wohlford went there every day.

Until the late 1960s, most people like him were simply locked away. With the discovery of drug treatments in the 1970s, people with mental illnesses started moving out of hospitals and into group homes. Then came day-treatment programs and group crafts.

The next step was to give people real jobs.

"By the '80s, folks were deciding that people with mental illnesses might be able to work," said Dr. Sally Rogers, a psychologist at Boston University's Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.

Treatment centers set up "supported employment," in which counselors help clients get a job interview, then keep tabs on their work. St. Petersburg's Boley Centers offer this program. Last year, counselors placed 340 people in jobs at more than 300 businesses: Checkers, McDonald's, Red Lobster and the Hilton.

But some seriously ill people, such as Ed Wohlford, can't handle the demands of supported employment.

That's where Vincent House comes in.

This spring, about the time Wohlford joined Vincent House, it launched a program called "transitional employment." Members earn the right to hold a part-time job by working in the clubhouse. They have to prove they can cope with the responsibility.

Then a counselor finds an employer willing to give a member a chance. The counselor trains for the job, then picks a member and shows him how to do it. That way, the member doesn't have to go through the stress of interviewing or explaining why he hasn't worked in 20 years. The counselor works alongside the member for as long as he or she needs help.

"They're all entry-level positions," says Steele, the Vincent House founder. "They all pay at least minimum wage. We have to explain to a lot of members that they can work part time without losing their disability benefits."

Eight members of Vincent House have gotten jobs. Some file medical records. One ships plumbing supplies. Another works at a catering company.

Wohlford's name is the latest addition to the bulletin board. But his photo isn't up yet.

They'll snap that when he gets his first paycheck.

* * *

"Where's Victor? I can't be late. Where's Victor?" Wohlford asks, pacing around the clubhouse.

Victor Taylor is the counselor who drives Wohlford to work. He also got Wohlford the job and trained him. For two weeks, Taylor went alone to Firehouse Subs in Pinellas Park to learn how to weigh lunch meat and wrap ham rolls. All last week, and for a couple of days this week, he stood beside Wohlford at the sub shop, showing him what to do, encouraging him and calming him and slapping high fives.

At 9:40 a.m., Taylor walks up, grinning. "You ready, brother? You're on your own today," he says, wrapping his arm around Wohlford. "Big day. Payday! That's what I'm talking about."

"I'm nervous," Wohlford says, rubbing his mustache.

"You're home now, brother. This is you!" Taylor says. Wohlford climbs into Taylor's Land Rover and hangs his head.

"I wish you could stay with me," he says. "I don't think they like me."

He worries all the way to the sub shop. What if someone crowds me? Or fusses at me? Or makes fun of me? What if I forget what I'm supposed to do?

Taylor helps Wohlford punch in, tie on his black apron, find his name tag and pin it on. "I'm Eddie," Wohlford says, showing off his name tag. "There was already an Ed here. So I'm Eddie."

Robin Blosser, the shift leader, shakes his hand. "We've got a busy day," she tells him. "Six platters got to go out in an hour. And I need three pans of Italians."

Wohlford's eyes widen. His shoulders start shaking.

Taylor puts his arm around him and hugs him hard. "Just keep focused, brother. You're gonna be great."

"You can do it Eddie," Blosser says. "You got it, man."

Wohlford tugs on plastic gloves. He glances at the TV in the corner; ESPN is blaring. Then he smashes his eyes shut, shakes his head, shuffles to the refrigerator and gets out one package of salami, one of pepperoni. He scans the sub shop until he finds Taylor, then walks over and waits. He stands there, blinking, until Taylor notices him.

"Hey, Robin, where do you want Ed to set up the Italians?" Taylor calls.

"Let's slide these cookies over and he can do it right here," she says, coming to his side. "You can do this, Eddie."

Taylor slices open the packages of precut meat. He checks the scale, then spreads a pile of deli sheets on the counter.

Salami on the bottom. Pepperoni on top. Salami. Salami. Salami. Salami. Salami. Okay. That should do it. Check the scale. Two ounces. Pepperoni on top. Pepperoni. Pepperoni. Pepperoni. Stoop to see the scale. Two more ounces. Two and two. Four ounces all together. Perfect. The circles of meat are evenly spaced on the paper.

"Am I slacking off?" Wohlford asks, arranging another salami slice on the scale.

"No, brother. You're doing great," Taylor says. "You're doing awesome."

He watches Wohlford portion out six more Italian subs. Then he squeezes Wohlford's shoulder and smiles. "You don't need me," Taylor says. "I'm going back to the clubhouse."

"Do you have to?" Wohlford asks. His lower lip is quivering.

* * *

Just before noon, the manager comes over. He stands behind Wohlford, watching him straighten deli paper, squint at the scale. "Way to go, Eddie!" he says.

Wohlford jumps. He knocks the salami off the scale. He looks up, sheepishly, at the manager. "I'll try harder," he says.

"You're doing great, Eddie," the manager says. "Keep it up."

Kevin Ferlita didn't know much about mental illness, but he knew Victor Taylor. They'd been friends for years. So when Taylor stopped in, asking about work for some of his people, Ferlita created a job: sandwich portioner.

"It seemed like a good chance to give someone a second start," Ferlita says. Ed "kept wanting to quit last week. I said, "Listen, we'll make sure you feel secure here.' We're all hoping we can help build his character."

Wohlford is loud, Ferlita says. He announces everything he's about to do. "And he's very serious," the manager says. "When he's finished doing what he's supposed to, he asks if he can do the dishes."

Just after 1 p.m., in the middle of the lunch crunch, black spots start spiraling in front of Wohlford's eyes. He puts down the pepperoni, yanks off his rubber gloves and glasses. He struggles to block out the chaos. He knows he needs to focus. "Dizzy," he says loudly. "I'm okay. Just dizzy." He bends and crushes his head between his elbows. "I can do this."

* * *

He fills the three pans of Italians, rolls two trays of ham. He's earned a break. But he doesn't want one.

"I'm done with the meat," he tells the shift leader. "Can I do dishes now?"

The sinks are piled high: red plastic trays, pans slathered in meatball sauce, cartons caked with chicken salad. Wohlford sees the stacks and beams.

Soap. Rinse. Sanitize. Soap. Rinse. Sanitize. "I'm not that quick," he tells the guy slicing cheese behind him. "But I'm trying hard."

Just before 2 p.m., the manager starts making his rounds. Wohlford watches him talking to the cashier, the sandwich girls, the guy slicing cheese. When Ferlita comes toward the sink, Wohlford looks into the water. "Am I doing okay, boss?" he asks, softer than usual.

"Better than okay," Ferlita booms, stretching out his hand. "This is going to be a day to celebrate, sir." He shakes Wohlford's soapy hand with his right, offers him an envelope with his left. "Now you're back on track. You're part of the work force."

Wohlford doesn't reach for the check. Ferlita thrusts it into his hand. Wohlford doesn't unfold it, doesn't see the bottom line: $114.70.

He stuffs it into his pocket and turns back to the sink of dirty dishes.

Later, back at the clubhouse, all the other members want to see the check. Wohlford holds it up while someone takes his photo for the bulletin board. Then he shoves it back into his pocket and picks up the vacuum.

"The money and all, it's great," he tells his fellow members. "But now every day is payday.

"I finally have a reason to get up and brush my teeth."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com

EMPLOYMENT AND THE MENTALLY ILL

One out of every five adults in the United States experiences a mental illness. Serious mental illness debilitates 5.4 percent of the population, according to a 1999 Surgeon General's report. Only 17 percent of those people are employed.

"Individuals with severe mental illnesses represent the single largest group on the disability rolls," says a 2000 study quoted in a report to the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. "Persons with mental disorders remain on the Social Security rolls considerably longer than those with other disabilities."

In Florida, 1.7-million people are mentally disabled. A March 2004 study from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill says 63,000 of those people should be getting help finding jobs. But last year, only 1,617 people were served by the state's 32 job placement programs.

"Everyone could be doing so much more than they are," says Vincent House co-founder Elliott Steele. "We just need to show the community these people are capable. Then we need to give them encouragement, convince them they can contribute."

For information about Vincent House, call (727) 521-2426.

- LANE DeGREGORY, Times Staff Writer

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