A passport for salvaging lives

Jewish Family Services helps the nonviolent mentally ill return to society.

By TAMARA EL-KHOURY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007

CLEARWATER-A year ago, Tracy Welsh, 35, was a drug addict diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, serving time for possession of cocaine.

Christoff Tzvetan, 40, was "chasing aliens in downtown Tampa" when he was put back in jail.

Both said their lives changed with the help of the Passport to Success program run by Gulf Coast Community Care, a division of Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services. The program helps nonviolent mentally ill adults return to the community.

Through the program, Welsh was assigned a "life coach" who got money to pay for her dental work and her registration fee at St. Petersburg College, where Welsh is now a full-time student. She recently started her second semester and hopes to become an addiction specialist.

"She belongs there," said Michael Bernstein, president of Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services. "Not where she was."

Tzvetan is now a successful real estate broker. He said his life coach gave him support and helped him find housing and the mental health care he needed.

"They did for me what nobody else could do," he said.

Thursday, the organization's leaders held an event at their Clearwater location on Icot Boulevard to bring together members of the justice system, government, community and law enforcement. Supporters like state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, and state Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, were recognized for their contributions.

Both Crist and Ambler said the services Gulf Coast provides save taxpayer money by turning adults who would be in jail into constructive members of the community.

"In retrospect, they have exceeded our expectations," Ambler said.

Gulf Coast Community Care said 75 percent of its Passport to Success clients have gotten jobs.

Last month, the organization rescued Robert C. Burrell, a mentally retarded and physically disabled man who languished in jail for 432 days. He faced no criminal charges but government agencies couldn't find a suitable place to put him.

Burrell's case highlighted the use of jails and prisons as a dumping ground for the mentally ill who can't find placement in more suitable institutions.

The Passport to Success program helps about 250 mentally ill ex-criminal offenders from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties each year.