“What’s Rule No. 1?” asks Tim “Stretch” Webber, computer instructor at the Loveland Center in Venice.
“No snoring!” exclaims Lisa, one of the students who are scattered throughout the room at computer stations.
“That’s right,” says Stretch with a laugh. “Snoring keeps me awake!”
The students are halfway through their morning computer lab, a class designed to, as Stretch puts it, help students “achieve their life goals through technology.” That can mean learning to build a spreadsheet, fill out a job application or search the web for information or fun. The assignments may seem basic, but these aren’t your average students. The Loveland Center, founded in 1962, is a resource center for adults with developmental disabilities, those for whom seemingly simple tasks present a sizable challenge.
Florida law defines as developmental disability conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, Prader-Willi syndrome or mental retardation that impede a person’s ability to perform everyday functions.
“Right now 4,600 students in the Sarasota County school system alone are designated with developmental disabilities,” says Benny Weaver, Loveland’s vice president of community development.
What happens to such students as they get older? While some will live in group homes or even on their own, most will remain at home with their parents. But something new is happening, not only in Sarasota but all over the United States. Even 15 years ago, most people with developmental disorders such as Down syndrome rarely reached their 40th birthday. They spent their entire lives with their parents, who cared for them from birth to death. But breakthroughs in medical technologies and better resources—including places like the Loveland Center—have increased the lifespan of many disabled adults. Today, it’s not unusual for a room at the Loveland Center to be filled with students in their 50s and 60s. That’s a triumph of modern medicine and education, and a blessing to the families who love these disabled adults. But it’s also a source of grave concern.
“This is the first generation of adults with developmental disabilities who are going to outlive their parents or their parents’ ability to care for them,” warns Weaver.
“It’s a big fear,” says Kathryn Shea, president of the Florida Center for Early Childhood and Family Development. Shea’s adopted 22-year-old son, Seth, was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome when he was four months old and joined Loveland in June. Seth lives at home right now, and Shea and her husband worry about his long-term future: “One of our biggest concerns is making sure he’s in a safe place where we know he’ll be taken care of,” she says. And, she adds, “We do not want Seth to go through loss and change at the same time.” Instead, they would like for Seth to transition into a new home before he has to cope with the loss of his parents.
But that comforting scenario may not be the reality many people like Seth will face. “If provisions aren’t made,” says Weaver, “the state of Florida will take these students to wherever they can find the closest bed—and that could be anywhere.” The state already cares for 450 adults with developmental disabilities from Sarasota County, with well over 300 on a waiting list—and that list will only grow longer as more students begin losing their parents.
With nowhere else to turn, these students would be sent to a new home—like a group home for the less severely disabled, or a more intensive nursing care facility, or one of Florida’s two state-run developmental disability centers. Many of those facilities are already at capacity, though. As traditional housing options become unavailable, some fear that disabled individuals will be sent to mental hospitals, or—like so many mentally handicapped adults in the 1970s—may even end up homeless.
Because of limited budgets and resources, even those in the state’s care are often moved repeatedly from one new county to another. A sudden move can be difficult and disorienting for anyone, but for people with developmental disabilities, it can be devastating. They need the familiarity of an established routine; without it, skills and habits that took years to instill can quickly vanish.
Building those skills and habits and establishing that sense of familiarity and routine are Loveland’s specialty. Students come to the campus from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every weekday and cycle through classes that teach practical and professional skills. A student might start the day in Stretch’s computer lab before heading to the kitchen for cooking lessons or the craft room to build mosaics. Classes are offered in hygiene and fitness. Practical tasks like organizing party favors for a local company’s event (which the students get paid for) and learning how to use a timesheet have enabled many Loveland students to find jobs—at Publix, Target and Longhorn Steakhouse, to name a few places—and join the wider community. Students select their class schedules to match life goals that the Loveland staff helps them articulate.
It’s not all work and class at Loveland, though. The recreational time is equally important, as students develop friendships and hone their people skills. There’s an entire closet stuffed with puzzles, one of Loveland’s most popular group activities. Students volunteer together throughout the community with organizations like the Selby Foundation, Suncoast Humane Society and Meals on Wheels, totaling more than 45,000 volunteer hours since 1999. Every year the students stage a play; last year their theater group, the Loveland Follies, won four awards at the International Theatre Festival in Venice. Achievements like these are not accidental, but the result of countless hours of training and work.
One quick walk through the Loveland Center and you learn that the name is well-deserved: The love between students and staff is evident at every turn. Hugs are the official greeting, and bonds are formed over shared interests and inside jokes. When Weaver asks a student named Henry what he’s planning to do that day, the sarcastic answer is always the same: “I’m gonna fire Carl [Carl Penxa, Loveland’s CEO],” Henry replies with a big grin.
Part of this dynamic arises from the childlike openness and affection that characterizes so many adults with developmental disabilities. Sunny and trusting, they’re eager to love—and easy to love in return. After watching them, you might wonder if the cost of full adult development is a tendency to keep people at a distance and to mistrust newcomers. At Loveland all you need to do to be someone’s new best friend is sit down and work on a puzzle together. Most staff members routinely refer to the center as a family—even if it’s one of the most unusual families you’ve ever seen.
Daniela Koci is a grant writer and one of Loveland’s newest employees. Grant writing can be a thankless job disconnected from the day-to-day work of an organization, but Koci says, “There’s so much longevity and passion in the staff that I was sold after my first week here.”
Nevertheless, there are limits to what the Loveland Center can now provide. Its 125 students go home at the end of the day, and Weaver has no comforting answers when parents ask him what will eventually happen to their children.
That’s why Loveland staff and supporters have spent a number of years developing a plan to extend the sense of family and security developed at its school into a permanent residential community. Called Loveland Village, the one-acre development on Loveland’s existing property would house three apartment buildings, a community center and a student services building. The 40 apartments, between one and four rooms each, will include personal kitchens, laundry rooms and bathrooms, with projected costs for residents starting at $225 per month.
The community center is intended to attract local organizations to host events and interact with the Loveland students; it will double as a disaster staging area and auxiliary communication center for Sarasota County.
Loveland has worked closely with Sarasota County in planning the village and its potential uses, and the board of commissioners has approved the necessary plan amendments and rezoning. The construction firms—Sarasota companies Halfacre Construction and J.E. Charlotte Construction—have been chosen. All that’s left is raising the money—an estimated $9 million for the entire project.
The Loveland Center has a proud fund-raising history. Thirty-six percent of Loveland’s budget comes from the state and five percent from Sarasota County, meaning 59 percent comes from the private sector—individual donations, community foundation grants and students’ tuition. The corridors between classrooms and offices are lined with plaques, pictures and engravings commemorating the generosity that has supported the center since 1962.
The Loveland Village, though, is an entirely new challenge. The cost for development, construction and accommodations for a potential enrollment increase is beyond anything Loveland has tried funding before. Sens. Nancy Detert, Mike Bennett and Joe Negron rallied around the cause early this year, appropriating $500,000 from the state budget to kick-start development. After a line-item veto by Gov. Rick Scott, though, the offer was withdrawn.
In a year that saw a proposed $4.6 billion removed from Florida’s $71 billion budget, a $500,000 veto may not seem significant. Most people barely blink at that number, which is overshadowed by the $3.3 billion in education cuts and the 8,700 slashed state jobs. But for Loveland’s students, staff and supporters, the veto was heartbreaking. The appropriation had been considered the state legislature’s official endorsement of the project and would open doors for grants and fund raising that otherwise seemed out of reach. Now the Loveland Center is left with blueprints and sketches, wondering how this dream will become reality.
Weaver says it’s difficult to understand why the funding was cut. Considering only the costs of transporting a developmentally disabled student to a new home, a permanent housing facility like the Loveland Village would save the state $1.1 million in Medicaid waiver funds, he points out. Nine other Loveland-type centers throughout Florida are planning similar projects, meaning a potential $10 million in savings in transportation costs alone. In addition, the centers intend to raise private donations to offset some of the ongoing costs of housing and caring for the students.
“I’m still wondering where common sense comes into this,” says Weaver. “Why would you want to penalize those who are in the greatest need of services and support?”
It would be easy to give up on the dream of a place for these students to someday live, to continue offering classes and simply wish the parents luck when it comes to planning for the future. But Weaver says that’s not an option. “Everything comes back to having a place to live,” he says, and the Loveland community continues to hope they can make that place available for as many students as possible.
Friends and families of the developmentally disabled are famously vocal. When Gov. Scott reduced funding for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities by 15 percent in April, his office received more than 500,000 emails and phone calls, says Weaver. Two weeks later the funding cut was reduced to four percent. Now the Loveland Center is counting on that kind of community involvement. A $500,000 predevelopment loan from the Florida Housing Coalition kicked off the fund raising, which the Loveland staff hopes will attract attention from around the state. “We’re going to keep moving along, telling the story, knocking on doors and educating people,” Weaver says. “Because housing is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.”
Weaver says that students often approach him, point to a rendering of Loveland Village and ask if they’ll be able to live there. In the future, he hopes the answer is a resounding yes.
Project: three two-story apartment buildings, community center and student services building on current five-acre property
Student capacity: 80
Unit amenities: kitchen, laundry room, bathroom
Monthly rental costs: $225-$350 per bedroom
Estimated cost: $9 million
Funds raised so far: $500,000
Construction companies: Halfacre Construction and J.E. Charlotte Construction
Additional staff needed to operate: 40-50
Funding for Loveland comes from three main sources: 36% the state of Florida, 5% Sarasota County and, overwhelmingly, 59% the private sector (donations, grants and tuition)
WANT TO HELP? Weaver urges anyone who is interested to visit Loveland to tour the facility and meet staff. You can also go to lovelandcenter.com to see a wish list of supplies, learn how to volunteer, sponsor events or make donations.