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‘He’s the most spiritual man I know’: South Jersey’s mental health pioneer gets his own movie

As a priest and as a lay counselor, Vince DiPasquale has always believed no one should die from addiction or mental illness because they couldn't find or afford help. A new film tells his story.

Vince DiPasquale, the subject of a new documentary airing Tuesday, Nov. 9, at the AMC Voorhees.
Vince DiPasquale, the subject of a new documentary airing Tuesday, Nov. 9, at the AMC Voorhees.Read moreCourtesy of Bill Horin

Violet Marrero didn’t have much faith in therapy, but she knew she needed help. So about eight years ago, she turned to The Starting Point, a nonprofit South Jersey counseling center that for decades has quietly been a lifeline for thousands of people with mental health and addiction problems.

At Starting Point, Marrero began to finally find relief from the trauma scars of a past, violent long-term relationship. While there, she got acquainted with Vince DiPasquale, the agency’s clinical director, a former Catholic priest who would be a legend even beyond local recovery circles if he wasn’t so humble. DiPasquale eventually worked with her personally, helping her heal the rest of the way — and not worrying about what her insurance would cover.

So recently, when Marrero, now 48 and happy, was asked to take part in a documentary about DiPasquale and The Starting Point, she didn’t miss a beat.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without Starting Point,” said the injury prevention educator. “I know my life wouldn’t be the same. I’m grateful I found them.”

Soon, more people will be hearing about The Starting Point.

Tuesday will be the premiere of Starting Point: The Story of Vince DiPasquale, a documentary directed by filmmaker Bill Horin, creative director of ArtC, a South Jersey arts organization. The film will be shown at the AMC Voorhees at 7:30 p.m.

As drug overdoses and despair-driven suicides have lowered the U.S. life expectancy rates in recent years, and addiction is a national epidemic, the documentary’s makers say theirs is a story of hope about one remarkable man and the organization he founded 44 years ago. It began as a halfway house for six alcoholic men in Philadelphia and now provides counseling, referral, education, and support to thousands of people each year out of its Haddon Township offices.

The Starting Point is home to 35 mental health and addiction professionals who provide their services on a sliding-fee scale, including free to some patients who can’t afford to pay. Twenty-six support groups, including many 12-step groups, meet regularly in the building.

At the heart of the organization is Camden-born DiPasquale, now 81. He left the priesthood after 20 years, at age 46. He is now married. Besides being the director, he sees patients and gives lectures in person and on Zoom that attract viewers from all over the country. He knows what he speaks of firsthand; he works his own 12-step program and is in recovery himself from an eating disorder.

Scott Rosen, a leading sponsor of the film, credits DiPasquale with helping him find his way to recovery from depression, anxiety, and addiction he suffered with as a young man decades ago.

“As someone who faced the enormous impact of his own mental health struggles, I understand the power of the healing gifts Vince shares with each lecture, each one-on-one session, each interaction,” said Rosen, who heads a local human resources firm.

“Now, at a time when awareness around depression, anxiety, and addiction is at an all-time high,” he said, “this film allows everyone to know the inspiration Vince brings and how he helps us find our true starting point.”

Rosen and the film’s creators hope to share the movie at film festivals and via online streaming.

Joe Curran, executive director of The Beacon Point, a drug and alcohol treatment program in Kensington and president of The Starting Point’s board of directors, has been DiPasquale’s friend and colleague for over 40 years.

“Vince is the most spiritual human I know. By that, I don’t mean religious,” Curran said. “I mean he has a presence of peace and spirituality that touches people in a way that is very, very unique.

“I’ve seen the hardest, toughest people just soften and melt with Vince’s talking with them. The barriers just disappear. He connects with people in a way that’s not threatening. It’s just something unique that he does that is a gift.”

Meanwhile, the down-to-earth, unassuming fellow who’s the object of all this admiration had to be talked into doing the film.

“To be honest with you, it’s something one of my board members came up with,” DiPasquale said, sounding almost apologetic. “I guess he’s doing something on legacy. I said to my wife, ‘Don’t they usually do these things after you die?’ But it’s nice.”

And the film gives DiPasquale, who has a master’s degree in pastoral counseling, the opportunity to talk about the work of helping those suffering from addiction and mental health problems, a mission he is passionate about.

“To me, it’s a spirit thing,” he said. “When I was a priest, I was a prison chaplain. I worked with drug addicts, alcoholics, and [mental health] programs for a long period of time. So I had a lot of background even before I began Starting Point.”

DiPasquale personally refers almost everyone who comes to Starting Point to either an in-house counselor or an outside program for help. He insists on offering the sliding-fee scale because — as stated on Starting Point’s website — his organization’s mission is to create “a world where no one dies because they could not find help for mental health issues, addiction or recovery.”

“That’s me,” DiPasquale said.

The film’s supporters want to spread awareness of Starting Point and its founder. But they also hope the film can help the organization find needed support.

“When COVID hit, there was a whole change in the ability of everybody to pay anything,” said Curran. “I will tell you, it’s been a tough year. We’re a nonprofit; we’re really lousy at fund-raising. We’re trying to get on that road right now.”

The film, he said, could potentially attract sponsors to help continue the center’s work. Proceeds from the premiere will be donated to Starting Point.

The boss, meanwhile, says he just believes.

“The Higher Power will take this where it’s supposed to go. As long as I stay out of the way, it works,” said DiPasquale. “Starting Point for years has operated on what I call ‘miracles of faith.’ Financially, we never had a ton of money. We depend on donations. We survive. We have a small staff but we do a lot. I always joke: Michael the Archangel runs the place, not me.”

At the premiere, he can just sit back and enjoy the show.

Tickets can be purchased online