Peer Specialist Maxine Noton, left, and Outreach Coordinator Renee Morrissette, right, gather lettuce as a harvest to be used in the day’s Peer Community Lunch. (Juzanne Martin/WUFT News)

Fundraisers, Grants, And A Plea To Gainesville’s Mayor Haven’t Yet Saved Florida’s Only Peer Respite Organization


Above: Hear a version of this story that aired on 89.1 WUFT-FM.

Florida nonprofit corporation Gainesville Peer Respite may be forced to close its doors to the community for good after losing its biggest donor in September.

A staff member’s passionate email to Mayor Lauren Poe was the nonprofit’s only hope.

“I figured if any nonprofit or charity was worth helping, it would be this one,” said Cherrell Richardson, a 20-year-old peer specialist recently hired at the Gainesville Peer Respite.

Richardson acknowledged it’s not Poe or the city’s “job to fund failing nonprofit organizations,” her email said, “our respite is in serious danger of being closed down even though our numbers and publicity have been increasing.”

The center is expecting a visit from Poe this month, but Richardson fears it may be too late.

She explained how the peer respite “started slow” and has a new team tasked with turning around “a struggling nonprofit.” The staff is asking for Poe to give them “a year or at least a couple months to prove that we are an organization that is worthy of being kept in this community.”

The Serenoa House has 5 bedrooms, two downstairs and three upstairs, for guests 18 years and older needing additional support. Each room comes with basic furniture, toiletries, bedding and towels. Individual key pads on every room door keeps guests’ belongings safe and secure. (Juzanne Martin/WUFT News)

The Gainesville Peer Respite’s Serenoa House at 728 E. University Ave. is situated in the historic district of downtown Gainesville. It provides a safe space for members of the community who self-identify as peers to connect. A “peer” in this context “is a person who has experienced overwhelming mental or emotional distress and seeks to form meaningful relationships with others.”

Guests are able to participate in various support groups and wellness activities that are available Monday through Sunday. Popular groups include Creative Connection, which explores healthy creative outlets such as art, writing and music, as well as Social Cues to help conquer shyness and social anxiety. Those seeking additional assistance can stay up to eight nights per month in one of the house’s five rooms. They have access to a kitchen stocked with healthy foods and are provided with toiletries and the ability to do laundry.

The development of peer respites is a newer movement.

Peer specialists are active listeners who work directly with visitors to offer emotional support. This is done in person, in a group setting or over the phone with the warm-line where callers can speak confidentially, although calls may not be answered right away.

“We’re the first peer respite in Florida, and one of only about 25 in the entire country,” Operations Director Amber Hodges said.

The 28-year-old began as a peer specialist in 2017, and now manages day-to-day operations that include support groups, wellness activities, events and staff. She now works tirelessly to invent new ways to receive funding after she said “[the private donor] cut off a big portion of our funding and are going to continue cutting back more and more each year.”

“They want us to be more self-sufficient and be able to find other alternative sources of funding,” Hodges said.

Staff members at the Gainesville Peer Respite have their own history with mental illness. “We use our own lived experiences to make connections and be able to help people with whatever they’re going through,” Operations Director Amanda Hodges said. (Juzanne Martin/WUFT News)

The Gainesville Peer Respite’s annual revenue from 2015 to 2017 was $767,848, according to 990 tax forms submitted to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Upon becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2015, the organization received $429,857 in contributions and grants.

That amount dropped by about 90 percent to $45,813 the following year.

Funds climbed back up to $292,178 in 2017. The group did not provide its 990 tax form for 2018 after a request from WUFT.

The organization’s staff have been forced to get creative to maximize funds.

Yard sales and fundraisers with Chipotle and Blaze Pizza are more recent efforts being made to generate income. She also described a 2019 cap grant through Alachua County as “a huge blessing” after receiving those funds in 2017 and 2018. Corporate sponsors have played a big role, with Papa John’s donating pizzas for the peer respite’s weekly Pizza Friday event.

Bread of the Mighty Food Bank distributes food and basic essentials to the peer respite for its food pantry. The nonprofit does still pay for groceries at a significant discount. “I can go and probably spend $20 and get enough food to last us almost the entire month,” Hodges said. (Juzanne Martin)

The group is seeking other grant opportunities, such as with the Lutheran Services Foundation who also funds organizations with which the center partners.

As a participant in this year’s The Amazing Give nonprofit fundraising event from March 20 to 21, the center received $7,903 from 78 donors. Hodges plans to set the bar even higher having “seen so many people’s lives touched.”

The Gainesville Peer Respite, however, cannot look to the mayor for any funding assistance.

“The city does not have a [discretionary] fund,” Poe said in his reply to Richardson’s email. He instead offered to talk to other organizations that may be able to help.

Alachua County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, also a member of the Gainesville Peer Respite’s board, recently contacted Richardson asking for input on ways to improve the center.

Funds are low, but the spirits of staff members and the center’s guests have remained high.

“People are blossoming,” said Maxine Noton, a former guest now peer specialist volunteer.

The 49-year-old was diagnosed with schizophrenia and knew about the peer respite nonprofit well before opening its doors in April of 2017. Since coming to the center she hasn’t been in the hospital in two and a half years.

“I didn’t feel alone anymore because now I had a community that accepted me, and that was really important because I had always been alone,” she said.

Noton is passionate about her job to “co-explore” healing and recovery with guests.

“Gainesville Peer Respite has a very unique relationship with the people that come here,” she said, “We’re all peers and we explore our own healing together.”

She hopes to leave a lasting impact as a member of a smaller community in the Gainesville area.

“I’ve learned confidence and love that I can share with the larger community that I didn’t have before I came here,” Noton said.

The Gainesville Opportunity Center, a community-partnership program for those with a major mental illness, helped install the peer respite’s garden but guests and staff members like Renee Morrissette are responsible for harvesting its crop. (Juzanne Martin/WUFT News)

About Juzanne Martin

Juzanne is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing or calling 352-392-6397.

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