Imagine visiting a foreign country, not knowing a word of its language. Imagine meeting the people – ignorant of their customs and culture – and a feeling of incongruity sets in. Drive their cars on the other side of the road using the other hand to shift gears, and you are likely to be regarded as an unskilled driver. Gazes linger on you just a little longer than what is comfortable. You want to communicate, but you simply speak another language. You do things your way. Among us is a community of children and adults who communicate differently from many, but are blessed with their own talents and skills, dreams, ambitions, and potential. They are not different, only differently-abled.
One woman in Florida, and another in Massachusetts, were so moved by a loved one, they had visions to create a better world for them. So what did Edythe and Eunice have in common?In 1948, at only 9 months of age, Midge Ibold was diagnosed with what is recognized today as Down syndrome. As she developed, her mother Edythe noticed her potential for learning, but found that Pinellas County had no programs for children with developmental disabilities. In 1952, determined to help her daughter reach her full potential, Edythe met 26 other concerned parents at St. Petersburg’s City Hall, to form what is now known as PARC. Today, PARC serves approximately 800 children and adults in the area. They have three distinct children’s programs supporting over 500 children, and an Adult Day Training program serving approximately 300 on a daily basis, and four homes with 94 residents.
Up North, Eunice Kennedy Shriver grew up playing with her sister, Rosemary who had a developmental disability, and she saw how poorly people like her sister were treated. Watching Rosemary grow, and seeing how experts underestimated the abilities of the intellectually disabled in sports and other physical activities, Eunice had a vision to provide opportunities to help them reach their full potential. In 1962, she started Camp Shriver in her backyard, which has now grown into the internationally-renowned organization known as the Special Olympics.
At the local level, both programs have created an awareness and drawn people of all abilities together for a common cause. Our community as a whole is reaping the benefits from the efforts put forth by these two women.
Vice president of community relations at PARC, Kelli Caputo, explains of the developmentally disabled, “We’re giving them the skill set that they need to be out in their community and to be comfortable.” While PARC began as a preschool focusing on children with develop-mental disabilities, the program now extends to people of all ages, bringing together residents, staff, and volunteers from all around the Tampa Bay area, including the Old Northeast. “We have close to 400 full-time, part-time, and relief staff. Last year, we had approximately 400 volunteers who helped out in some way. It’s amazing to see the groups that have come together to do something special for the individuals at PARC.”
Chris and June, both PARC residents, are also new members of the St. Pete Stingrays swim team and practice twice a week. Coached by Gary Parsley at Northshore Pool, they recently participated in their second Special Olympics swim meet, in the freestyle and backstroke events. At PARC Center Industries, Chris also works to help businesses with their assembly, packing, and shipping needs. He is proud of his weekly paycheck and looks forward to spending it on a variety of outings. When asked about the meals offered at his residence, he emphatically proclaims, “Lasagna!” as his favorite, adding, “I love the staff at PARC,” as he gives Kory Blair a bear hug.
Blair, with a Master’s degree in Therapeutic Recreation and Aquatic Therapy, and staff member at the Bert Muller PARC residence, initiated the relationship between the Northshore Special Olympics swimming program and PARC. Both she and Ashley Smith are hands-on therapists and get in the pool with the swimmers. Blair explains that people are oftentimes unsure of how to approach individuals with special needs, and encourages inter-acting with them on a personal level as one would with any stranger they meet. “Even starting with something as basic as a name can go a long way,” she says. “Individuals with special needs are differently-abled, full of potential, and just as likely, if not more so to make a positive impact on the world around them. This is what I try to make clear to people unfamiliar with this population.”
Caputo appreciates that potential and the benefits of empowering individuals with options. “It’s all about choice at PARC. How do you or I want to spend our day? What are our favorite things to do? Do we want to learn a vocation and get a job? It’s a choice. It’s about an individual’s goals.” Caputo continues, “Recreation is definitely important. The children in our preschool take part in a national Healthy Families movement which focuses on good nutrition and recreation.” PARC residents compete at multiple Special Olympics events, choosing from their favorite activities which range from track-and-field, to swimming, to equestrian events. “They’ve also participated in golf clinics with First Tee of St. Petersburg, baseball with Miracle League, and Kiwanis’ Horses for the Handicapped, an equine therapy program.” Caputo says.
The Northeast Journal’s own art director, Julie Johnston is a volunteer with various organizations dedicated to the developmentally disabled. She has recently started volunteering with PARC’s special events and art studio. “I was searching for a place to donate some of my art supplies, and I stumbled across this beautiful oasis of people helping people. What a fantastic place PARC is!”
Shortly after moving to Florida, Julie found an event combining two of her interests – Special Olympics and horses – The Special Olympics Equestrian Championship at the Tampa Fairgrounds. There she met staff, volunteers, and riders from Bakas Horses for Handicapped. Along with volunteering at Bakas special events and offering her graphic design skills, Julie has also helped judge the Equestrian Championship for more than 5 years. “Objectively judging riders as they navigate the trail event is a delightful challenge. Riders’ abilities and personalities vary so much, so we have to keep focused on how each rider accomplishes each element of the trail.” She remembers one particular rider this year, “He got a perfect ten on that element because he steered his horse into a perfectly straight stop-and-hold. I still get goose bumps thinking of that moment.” She looks forward to the next Championship the first weekend in May 2014.
At that same Championship, athlete Karl Robert (pictured on the cover) competed in the working trails competition and came in 2nd Place, receiving the silver medal. He trains at the Marion Therapeutic Riding Association (MTRA) in Ocala, Florida, and competes for Special Olympics Florida – Marion County. The range and depth of training and competition opportunities offered by Special Olympics is remarkable. In addition to the Equestrian events, Karl also competes in flag football, track-and-field, basketball and bowling.
Programs at PARC are not limited to sports and recreation. Among their many offerings is the annual Art in the PARC event featuring work created by residents and clients at PARC’s Fine Arts Studio and Gallery and 5th Ave Jewelers. Lynn Marie, entrepreneur and artist who attends PARC day programs, was eager to market her paintings. She explains that she receives 50% of every piece she sells, and 50% goes back into funding the supplies for the program. This past July, the event was held at USF St. Pete’s Harbour Hall. “Our artists achieve professional status when they sell their work!” says Caputo.
This year, PARC was also selected as the Leadership St. Pete Class of 2013 project, a division of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. Class members renovated a worn area of PARC, tripling the size of their garden. Two staff members are currently coming up with a curriculum for the garden program. Caputo adds, “This program will be therapeutic, vocational, and entrepreneurial when they grow plants, vegetables, and herbs to sell in the community. Hopefully we’ll have some product for the Green Thumb festival next Spring.”
PARC’s history is long and rich, boasting veteran staff, many with careers spanning 20-35 years. This year, the organization will be celebrating its 60th anniversary with its annual Black Tie Gala at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club on October 19. The Gala itself is celebrating 44 years. “People who started this event took a risk to help bring PARC’s mission into people’s homes – to make supporting children and adults with developmental disabilities something you can do and have fun while you’re doing it,” explains Caputo.
Every person who has been touched by a special-needs individual has a heartwarming and magical story, enriching the lives of both involved. Gary Parsley shares his philosophy about coaching the Stingrays, “I made it clear to the swimmers when I started: It’s not about winning. It’s not about who is the best. It’s about doing the best that you can do,” – a philosophy, that if people of all abilities could achieve, would make the world a better place.
To learn more about the various programs in our community, please visit: