WEST SHORE — Each weekday, up to 110 individuals pack boxes, bag groceries and sew bright orange vests for road crews while learning social skills for the workplace and improving their physical fitness.
For those like 31-year-old Jennifer Boskay, who has Down syndrome, the MacDonald Training Center is the way to a better life.
“I want a job in the community,” she said. “I like it; I’m working, not sitting around doing nothing.”
For 60 years this week, the MacDonald center has worked to help individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities through job training and life skills development. Thursday begins a yearlong celebration with a luncheon for supporters.
The 67,000-square-foot training facility, now at 5420 W. Cypress Ave., was founded in 1954 by J. Clifford MacDonald and other parents of developmentally disabled children. The program began with a preschool, taught by members of the Junior League, because there was no school available for the children, said Jim Freyvogel, the nonprofit group’s president and CEO for 13 years.
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Along the way, it received support from other groups and businesses. A Sertoma club funded the first workshops and brought the center its last $100 from its bank account when that club closed; a leadership class from the West Shore Alliance built a fine arts gallery for clients to show and sell their work; the Gasparilla Arts Festival included the clients in the show.
Over the years, The center has expanded and changed with the needs of the clients — and its focus shifted to getting the clients functioning at their best possible level. It also focused on encouraging the business community to hire workers for manufacturing companies, grocery stores and other jobs.
A major breakthrough came in 2007 when the nonprofit group bid for the job of packing and shipping SunPass transponders for use on toll roads, said Rita Hattab, the center’s director of development.
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Since then, the center has packaged more than 6 million of them with a less than 1 percent error rate, Hattab said.
The organization has 34 contracts for work with private businesses and government agencies. Before SunPass, it had four, she said. Some contracts require a closed control environment, where clients wear gowns and hair coverings, and temperature is maintained.
Clients can train up to two hours a day with one of the contract jobs and are paid an hourly rate. The rest of the day is for learning social skills, life skills and improving their physical fitness so they can maintain stamina on a job.
“We really made that a business, not a social service,” Hattab said.
But the idea is not for the clients to stay at the center; the goal is to “get them as integrated fully as valued and contributing members of the community,” said Freyvogel.
A federal mandate issued March 17 was a “watershed moment” for individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities because it will require such individuals receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs, as well as promotes having more individuals live on their own, not in groups homes, Freyvogel said.
MacDonald Training Center eliminated group homes 12 years ago, Freyvogel said.
“We need to the community to welcome them and its our job to facilitate that,” he said. “As we were for the first 60 years, we are part of the leaders for the next 60 years.”