Karenne Levy: No entry-level job for a lifetime

The vision goes beyond a lifetime of entry-level jobs and low-wage employment.

For families that have loved ones with a disability, life can be unusually difficult. There are barriers and hurdles they face that many may not fully appreciate. Becoming an economically stable and productive member of society can be one of those challenges, especially if there are not sufficient resources (such as state government programs, for example) to help support them.

The MacDonald Training Center is committed to such a cause. In operation for nearly 70 years, its founder was a father who had a son with an intellectual disability. That founder, J. Clifford MacDonald, eventually received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his advocacy and belief that people with disabilities could and should be productive members of society.

J. Clifford MacDonald, and all the families he helped, wanted a life for loved ones that was inclusive and equitable. Today Adult Day Training facilities, known as ADTs, focus on job skills, independent living skills, and workforce training for people with myriad physical and intellectual challenges. These clients, who might otherwise have no choice but to fully depend on the state or their families, are on a path toward independence and productivity.

The vision goes beyond a lifetime of entry-level jobs and low-wage employment. MacDonald Training Center’s eMerge Career Collaborative prepares individuals with disabilities for in-demand jobs in technology, manufacturing,  and hospitality. In a unique award-winning partnership with Moffitt Cancer Center (MCC), they assist individuals with disabilities who have been given care by the community, to become caregivers themselves. The program teaches and certifies students in the industry’s best practices in sanitation and customer service, and global standards in environmental safety, critically needed skills in today’s health care field.

Cadajah Brooks, an ADT client now working at Moffitt Cancer Center in the environmental department tells everyone she meets how proud she is to be part of a team working together to cure cancer. She knows that her job helps keep vulnerable patients safe. Without the training she received in MacDonald Training Center’s ADT program, this very hard worker, with an incandescent smile, may have been relegated to a lifetime of television and unspeakable loneliness.

Cadajah’s mother, Gloria Wynn-Newton, is grateful that her daughter will have the opportunity to have a fuller life, including the pride of a job well done. “ For the first time, Cadajah’s life has a work/life balance, something most people take for granted, but we never knew would be possible.”

None of this would be possible without the help of ADT employees, known as Direct Support Professionals. These caring, highly trained individuals ensure that their clients are clinically and physically safe; without them, those clients who have the ability to work and be included by the community would not have the opportunity.

Kaylin Villeme, an instructor at MacDonald Training Center was Cadajah’s teacher in the Moffitt program and sees firsthand the results of investing in educational and vocational opportunities

for people who might otherwise be left behind. “I’ve taught for over 30 years, but never saw lives changed so powerfully as when a client leaves ADT for successful employment. I am so proud of our students and their success!”

These Direct Support Professionals are experts in their field. They are trained and specialized and must be adequately compensated; they are inarguably a worthwhile investment for the community and the state Legislature.

How are ADTs funded and these highly trained employees paid? A majority of funding comes from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), and each ADT receives funding dependent on its size, staffing ability, number of clients, and many other factors.

And, indeed, there is a dire need for additional funding. The vagaries of the past year wreaked havoc on people with disabilities and the organizations that serve them. Just as the need for more support services, including mental health counseling to deal with the challenges of months of isolation and lost independent living skills, many ADT facilities are on the brink of closing or have already closed. Many employees are reluctantly leaving for other positions that pay only a few more dollars an hour in order to better serve their own families.

Increased funding will yield a tremendous return on investment, as it supports top-notch vocational training programs such as those at the MacDonald Training Center.

These programs are only a small example of the services that ADT facilities across the state offer. Most importantly, they offer their clients the opportunity to gain valuable vocational skills that will elevate their futures.

We are optimistic that lawmakers understand this problem and are taking steps to help alleviate the crisis by increasing reimbursement rates for ADTs so we can continue this critically important work. If something does not change in the state of Florida and change soon, people with disabilities will have fewer support services just when they need them most.

Our belief is that no one, including those with disabilities, should be limited to a lifetime of entry-level jobs. Our state will flourish when the skills and talents of all are recognized, encouraged and supported. We are only able to provide these opportunities and ensure a bright future for those who are in need if those who have the means support us.

We are not asking for a handout, but a helping hand up.


Karenne P. Levy is the president and CEO of MacDonald Training Center, Inc. (MTC), Tampa’s premier provider of services to people with disabilities and an organization recognized for its transformational and innovative service approach.

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