Ellie Hart loves the access to the ocean from her South Palm Beach condo, but her real passion is teaching the Mental Health First Aid course as a volunteer at the Alpert Jewish Family Services Center in West Palm Beach. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Citing statistics showing 1 in 5 Americans suffers from some form of mental illness in their lifetime, President Joe Biden said in March’s State of the Union address that it’s time we put mental fitness on a par with physical fitness.
Ellie Hart of South Palm Beach not only concurs with that message, but she’s been teaching it for some time.
After a lengthy career in the Social Security Administration, Hart, 74, was directing another program at the Alpert Jewish Family Services Center in West Palm Beach when she heard about Mental Health First Aid, which is described as CPR for mental health.
“I went to the director and said, ‘I’d like to teach this course, will you let me do it?’” Hart said. “They agreed to send me to training and I became one of 88 instructors throughout Palm Beach County who teach Mental Health First Aid.
“I’m the only volunteer who teaches this,” she added. “The others are paid employees who also have other responsibilities.”
One eye-opener in her education was the pervasiveness of mental illness, as reflected in the 1-in-5 statistic.
“It can be depression, it can be anxiety, it can be bipolar. And in many cases, it takes 10 years from the onset until they get help. Ten years, that’s a decade of suffering.
“Had I known 40 years ago what I know today about the signs and symptoms of somebody who may have been having a mental health challenge, or substance abuse disorder challenge, my life may have been very different.”
Control issues led to a divorce from her first husband, whereupon she found “the love of my life” with her second.
His death in 2010 prompted Hart to get more involved with the Alpert Jewish center, first as an AmeriCorps volunteer, then as director of its Music and Memory program, which offers individualized playlists to clients suffering from memory loss. She also serves as a volunteer reader to two classes at Roosevelt Elementary, a Title 1 school in West Palm Beach.
But her main focus has become MHFA.
“We don’t diagnose,” said Hart, the stepmother of three. “We just listen nonjudgmentally, we train people how to do that, and what the signs and symptoms are, so they can get a referral to professionals.”
Hart recently taught the course to people at The Breakers in Palm Beach, working first with management and more recently with the golf shop employees, engineers, plumbers, kitchen help and so on. Due to their busy schedules, she streamlined what is normally an eight-hour course into two hours and called it “Mental Health Is Everyone’s Business.”
“I see this becoming as common as CPR; it’s like CPR for mental health,” she said. “Raise people’s awareness so they can get help early on and get rid of the stigma.
“It’s not dissimilar from LGBTQ; it was in the closet for many years and now it’s out in the open. So, we’re trying to do that. Years ago, if you had a friend who had serious mental illness you would never talk about it. So, it’s changing.”
— Brian Biggane
Q: Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A: I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and went to school there. I attended Emory University for the first two years of college and graduated with a B.A. from Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. At the time Goucher was an all-girls school. It became co-ed. The influence was a good education, enabling me to be articulate, interested in the community and the world.
Q: What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: I worked for the Social Security Administration for about 31 years and was able to retire early. In the course of my career, I had several different and challenging positions, from working in a field office to becoming a program analyst to becoming a systems analyst. My greatest satisfaction was working on a very early “expert system” involving the assignment of Social Security numbers.
After the death of my husband, Jerry Hart, in 2010, when I moved to Florida full time, my brother gave me some good advice: You’re too young to be retired, find something to do, paid or unpaid. So, I went to Alpert Jewish Family Services offering my services two days a week. I learned the organization’s programs, became an AmeriCorps volunteer, and did outreach to veterans.
Through someone I met at a lecture, I had the opportunity to accompany a female veteran on an Honor Flight to Washington. Very thrilling.
The service as an AmeriCorps volunteer introduced me to a new community of people (mostly veterans) and gave me a genuine appreciation of their service to America.
I developed and still run a small Music and Memory program that provides personalized playlists for clients of Alpert JFS who are isolated and/or have memory issues.
Two years ago, I became a certified instructor for the Mental Health First Aid program coordinated countywide by Alpert JFS. I have found my calling. I am most proud to be able to do this.
Q: What advice do you have for a young person seeking a career today?
A: Be flexible, exceed expectations, and make your boss look good.
Q: How did you choose to make your home in South Palm Beach?
A: My parents were seasonal residents from 1979 to 1998. After my father died and my mother chose not to return seasonally, my husband and I began using the condo in 1998, and we bought our own place in the same building, which we loved.
Q: What is your favorite part about living in South Palm Beach?
A: The height limit of all the buildings, the access to the beach and the ocean, the convenience of the location, and the beauty along South Ocean Boulevard.
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.
Q: What music do you listen to when you want to relax? When you want to be inspired?
A: I don’t need music to relax or inspire me, but I like classical music and ’50s and ’60s music.
Q: Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A: I had two mentors at different places of employment.
The first was Hilda Hicks, who was a Social Security Administration field office manager back in the early ’70s. She had great faith in me. She taught me some of the techniques involved in changing roles from a position as claims representative to a supervisor.
She was a Black woman who had trained as a claims representative in a field office in Atlanta in the mid-’60s. She told me how they were in a hotel and the wait staff would put the tray in front of the door to her room. They would not allow her into the dining room. She was just a larger-than-life individual. She shared that experience with me, and it made a big impression on me.
The other was the CEO of Alpert Family Services, Jenni Frumer. When my husband died, I went and told her I wanted something to do that was worthwhile. I went with my résumé, and she said, spend a year with me, learn the organization, and I’ll find something for you to do. So, she had faith that I had enough skills that she would be able to make use of them. She was just a really great guide.
Q: If your life story were to be made into a movie, who would play you?
A: Olivia de Havilland; she was smart, elegant and beautiful.
Q: Who/what makes you laugh?
A: A good joke, preferably clean. I really don’t like off-color humor.