by Trista Meister
Polly Keller has been surrounded by mental illness her entire life. And now, due primarily to her volunteer efforts a half century ago and the steadfast support of thousands of Neapolitans along the way, David Lawrence Center (DLC) stands as the premier mental health and addiction treatment facility in Collier County today.
Established as the Collier Mental Health Clinic in 1968 through Keller’s vision, hard work and determination, this year DLC celebrates its 50th Anniversary as a pillar of hope, health and healing.
As the daughter of a psychiatrist who ran a state mental hospital, Keller was exposed from a very young age to those struggling with mental illness.
“I developed an empathy and compassion for the patients I came to know,” says Keller, now 82. “Delivering quality mental health services to those in need, regardless of their ability to pay, has been a primary concern all my life.”
Before the clinic could open its doors, it needed funding, a location and a psychiatrist. Keller got to work gathering support. She convinced real estate developer Donald Stoneburner to donate a small building off of Creech Road. She then secured a unanimous vote – unprecedented at the time – for financial support from Collier County Board of Commissioners.
Soon, the state and school system followed with funding, and the clinic opened its doors on October 10,1969, with three staff members, including Naples’ first psychiatrist.
Keller soon realized that public funding wouldn’t be enough to support the not-for profit’s growing demand, so she and the board began searching for private donors.
In 1976, they formed the Foundation for Mental Health Inc. to spearhead fundraising.
The clinic changed its name to David Lawrence Center in 1980 after Doug and Mercy Bathey donated the money to buy an 8-acre parcel of land off of Golden Gate Parkway, where the center’s main campus now sits. Their son, David Lawrence Bathey, lost his life after a struggle with mental illness and addiction.
The clinic changed its name in honor of their generosity and David’s legacy.
This delicate balance of government and private funds is a testament to the positive change that happens when a community comes together, and it is even more critical today than ever.
Keller is quick to note that today Florida ranks 49th nationally in government spending per capita for mental health.
“I’ve seen the need to supplement inadequate government funding. And I’ve seen the need to develop innovative services to meet the needs of our growing, diverse population. That’s why we fundraise.”
Today, DLC has three campuses (including one in Immokalee), more than 40 programs and serves 9,000 children and adults each year. Statistics show that one in four will have some need for mental health services in their lifetime, and one in nine will be impacted by a substance use disorder.
Keller adds, “When you think about the fact that each of those individuals is in a family, and that person affects the family, and that family affects the community, you see how important those statistics really are.”
As a result of heightened awareness from recent headline-making school shootings, increased suicides among children and the devastating effects of the opioid epidemic, coupled with this community’s extreme population growth, projected future referrals to the center are staggering.
To prepare in 2017, just as it did 50 years ago, the center worked with county commissioners to hold the first-ever, county-led workshop for mental health. This resulted in their commitment to develop a mental health strategic plan for Collier County in 2018.
“In the next 50 years, my hope is we are meeting more of the needs of the community,” says Keller. “I’d like to see our patients and the mentally ill out of jail. I would like to see expanded children’s services and more education so the whole community understands how important mental health really is and supports our efforts.”
For more information on how to help struggling neighbors find help, hope and healing – for the next 50 years and beyond– visit DavidLawrenceCenter.org or call 239.455.8500.