A s a young boy, John Romano remembers visiting his uncle in a mental hospital. He would accompany his parents to a place he describes as warehouse-like, where the patients in its care received less-than-desirable treatment.
“That was kind of a catalyst for me,” says Romano, outgoing president and CEO of New Horizons of the Treasure Coast. “I always kind of had a special place in my heart for those people.”
Romano’s uncle served in the army during World War II and fell victim to battle fatigue, the 1940s-era term for what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He was seriously mentally ill,” he says. “He spent the rest of his life in that hospital.”
Romano earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Marshall University in West Virginia and a master’s degree in health services administration from St. Joseph’s College in Maine. A job as an intake counselor for the then Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services’ Florida School for Boys brought him to Okeechobee, and a promotion to district program manager of the department brought him to West Palm Beach. In 1988, an opportunity arose at the Fort Pierce-based non-profit, and for three decades he has been educating the public about mental illness.
“Mental illness has evolved,” he says. “The stigma’s still there, but I think people are more accepting of it today as a disease of the brain.”
The 68-year-old Palm City resident will retire Dec. 31 from the organization that annually serves more than 14,000 adults and children in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties. He has grown it to a $26 million budget with 400 employees, nine facilities and countless programs. The Frances Langford Children’s Crisis Unit is his crowning achievement.
“I’m most proud of getting a children’s crisis-stabilization unit back in 2010 in the four-county area,” says Romano, who soon will relocate to North Carolina with his wife, Carole, to be closer to their grandchildren. “In all the things that we do, I think that’s our biggest accomplishment. Helping kids is foremost.”
He will receive the Mental Health Champion Award at a Nov. 10 gala honoring his 30 years of leadership and celebrating New Horizons of the Treasure Coast’s 60th anniversary.
What are some of the things you are looking forward to doing with your grandchildren?
I’m looking forward to attending their sports and activities, attending school functions and having them over for sleepovers. We plan to take them on lots of special outings and trips.
Describe the house you and your wife are building.
We’re having a house built in a new, small community outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. The floor plan is a story and a half, with the main living area on the first floor and a bonus suite upstairs. We’re looking forward to enjoying our indoor and outdoor fireplaces.
Do you have any hobbies or interests you would like to pursue after retirement?
I’d like to get back to playing tennis, get back in shape and do lots of traveling, both in the U.S. and abroad. I’ll also get involved in community organizations and in activities such as serving as a volunteer board director for social-services organizations in the mental-health and substance-use, and child-welfare fields.