Hundreds of mentally ill adults in two Central Florida counties have fought the stigma of their illness, regained some measure of self-esteem and either re-entered the mainstream community or made plans for a self-sufficient life due to the volunteer work of Z. Salty Leatherwood. These are largely men and women who were placed in institutions or group homes and identified by their case managers as having no support system in the community.
Leatherwood founded PROJECT CARE, INC. initially to provide Christmas and birthday gifts for these forgotten people. Their excitement being visited by “someone who is not afraid of us” and their eagerness for human contact – especially hugs – led her to expand the operation of PROJECT CARE. She gives parties, calls BINGO (and brings all the prizes) and provides for special needs at adult living facilities and at a socialization center for the mentally ill.
For the past two years, she has prepared individually tailored packages of household supplies – dishes, linens, pots and pans, etc. – for mentally ill persons who have stabilized enough to move out of group homes and into apartments under case management supervision. No one else provides this service in this area! This service is called “Fresh Start,” and is designed to provide a financial and psychological boost to help the recipients find success in independent living and stay free of the mental health system. Most have limited disability financial aid and would otherwise have to choose between food and a dish from which to eat it.
Every cent collected by Leatherwood for gifts is spent on gifts. She used her own money to incorporate PROJECT CARE as a 501(c)(3) corporation and paid all fundraising costs until a local business (Daytona International Speedway) agreed to take care of the postage expenses. Leatherwood’s tireless work serves a forgotten population – a population that is not always easy to help. No other population has more unmet human needs.
The fact that she is willing to sit down and visit with the severely mentally ill perhaps has accomplished more than any other activity could have done. At the socialization center, they love her so much they named her an “honorary consumer,” in other words gave her honorary status as one of them – an honor only those working in the field can truly appreciate.
Leatherwood’s hands-on approach to bring the mentally ill back into the community as functioning individuals is a direct contrast to the usual series of committee meetings and summit discussions which end with an agreement that there is a problem and someone ought to do something about it.
Leatherwood realizes that it is necessary to recruit others to help champion the cause, and she is working to recruit special people who would enjoy being a part of her efforts. She has even recruited her granddaughter who has worked with her since she was five years old and now understands those who may behave a little differently than she does.
Over the past 12 years, the community of Daytona Beach has benefited from the passionate work of Z. Salty Leatherwood. She initially began her crusade for the mentally ill with the Mental Health Association, and then through PROJECT CARE, INC. Though she has survived two heart attacks and triple bypass surgery, she continues to find time to work and to help the homeless populations of both children and adults who are also underserved.