Advocacy, action are second nature for Michelle Detweiler, CEO of PARC • St Pete Catalyst

Seasons change, years come and go, but the need never goes away.

Children and adults with intellectual disabilities need advocates, attention and inevitably some form of assistance. For 67 years, PARC (Providing Advocacy Recognizing Capabilities) has been the ground zero in Pinellas County to help these people exercise their independence and live their best lives.

Initially, PARC was the acronym for Pinellas Association for Retarded Children. This indelicate, non-PC mantle is also inaccurate – it does not reflect the centre’s expansive adult programming. So it’s been gone for a while.

According to President and CEO Michelle Detweiler, renaming PARC for its next 67 years, and beyond, is part of the mission. And the mission, like the need, continues to grow.

“I feel very passionate about the people we serve,” said Detweiler. “It is an invisible population.

“People don’t see them. And that’s a natural thing. It’s not a comfortable thing to say hello to someone who looks different or sounds different. So they are ignored, a lot. And what joy it brings me to be a part of their life. It sure has enriched my life.

Detweiler’s connection to PARC was wired even before he was born. Her older sister, Leslie Muller, has a developmental delay. “When she was 10, my parents had to put her in a public institution,” Detweiler recalls. “And that was… not right.

“As a child, I remember going to visit her on weekends, my mother was crying and entering this room with a hundred beds with white sheets. It was your typical institutional type thing.

It was his love and dedication to Leslie, the eldest of his five children, that led insurance agent Bert Muller to volunteer at Peter Pan School, the ancestor of PARC.

March 19, 1971: Bert Muller with Rose Kennedy, who toured the facility and spoke at a PARC fundraiser that evening. photo PARC.

In 1963, he became its first executive director, a position he held for three decades. Muller negotiated the purchase of 10 acres in the Tyrone region from the city of St. Petersburg and began to develop the PARC campus – along with its scope, programs, and people.

“My dad was dynamic and charismatic, and people were drawn to him,” Detweiler said. “He was able to raise the necessary funds to… well, to do what we’re doing today.

Leslie was one of the centre’s first full-time residents. At 63, she still lives there today.

Michelle (Muller) Detweiler can’t remember a time when empathy, selflessness and hope were not part of her world. “There was always someone at our table who was not part of our family,” she said, smiling at the memory. “Someone who supported PARC. Or someone who needed help.

Bert Muller has broadened his fundraising reach to include dinner parties, galas, shows and even a celebrity golf tournament. Eleven-year-old Michelle took one for the team – literally – when a stray bullet hit her in the head during the 1977 tournament. She was comforted by Kojak actor Kevin Dobson, who sat her in his golf cat until a doctor arrived to treat her.

The incident made the local newspaper, under the headline Painful moment at a fun event.

The next morning, Detweiler’s fifth-grade teacher made a comment that still bothers her: “He said ‘Hope this made sense to you.’ “

At 15, she went to work at the Resale Shop PARC on 66e Street. After graduating from St. Pete Catholic High School, and after earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Jacksonville and an MBA from Tampa College, she went to work as principal of the development for PARC, then in several other non-profit organizations. including R’Club, American Red Cross and United Way.

She moved on to the private sector, running Detweiler’s propane gas service for over 15 years. Leaving her ex-husband’s family business behind, she became Chief Operating Officer of PARC in 2018 (Bert Muller died in 2010).

At the end of September of this year, Detweiler was promoted to President and CEO.

“Titles,” she explained, “don’t matter to me. What matters to me is the impact I can have, whether as COO, Director of Development or President and CEO. I never thought of my career as a rock climbing thing. It’s more like ‘What position can I have where I can really be the loudest voice there is for what we’re doing?’ “

Musician Chris Manings entertained residents on a recent Friday morning, as volunteers (and residents) dance. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Today’s PARC is a multi-level organization serving approximately 500 children and adults, with over 40 specialized programs.

There are several children’s programs, starting with the original Discovery Learning Center; there are early intervention services, individualized therapy, and an extensive early education program. PARC also offers a “respite” service, allowing parents and other home caregivers to take emotional and physical breaks as needed.

Adults benefit from the Life Skills Development program, with a wide variety of structured activities, social interactions and skills development opportunities. There’s an art studio, a horticulture classroom, and even a fabrication shop where attendees can earn competitive salaries for assembly, packaging, and shipping.

The community employment program prepares individuals for work in the community at large, promoting social integration and productivity, helping with personal growth and self-confidence.

There is a life support program, two Medicaid Waiver group homes, and two intermediate care facilities for young adolescents and adults.

The current labor shortage has had a dramatic impact on group accommodation homes, as many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities require 24-hour care. In Florida, more than 100 nursing facilities. this guy have closed since March.

PARC’s annual budget of $ 17 million comes mainly from the Juvenile Welfare Board, the Early Learning Coalition, Florida Health and a few others. Community sponsors and private donations are frequent and welcome.

His biggest challenge, in Detweiler’s eyes, is to align PARC – which is now almost 70 years old – on the 21st century.

Not surprisingly, money is at the root of the problem. “The government is not going to give us more money, so we have to collect more money,” she said. “A lot of the people who work here – the front lines – don’t get a living wage. And we have to change that.

“In order for me to sleep at night, I need to know that we are doing everything to change this. Our board of directors is committed to it. Our management is committed to it. And we have made progress over the past three years, but we need to do a lot more. “

Then there is the campus itself. “Our buildings are 40, 50 years old. Building One, along with our children’s services, is our top priority now. We need to find a replacement, whether it’s somewhere in the community or a partnership with another organization. I’m all about collaboration. We need to find a new space for our children’s services.

“We have acquired rights with the licenses, but our classrooms are not the right size. We couldn’t open this school today, the way it’s designed. We cannot meet the need because of this. We cannot be accredited because of the building.

She wonders aloud if the state government is not sufficiently focused on the needs of people in the struggling foster care system (“with which we are not involved”), as well as on children and adults with disabilities. “There are a lot of things that keep us from serving more people,” she said.

Yet the employees – many of whom have been with PARC since the 1980s and 1990s – remain dedicated. Michelle Detweiler considers them, along with residents, patrons and program attendees, to be part of her own family. Part of the Bert Muller family.

“I remember my dad telling me ‘Michelle, this still works.’ And he’s right, she said. “I believe that as long as we do what we do, it works.

“And as long as we have the right people in place, we can keep going. Because we do amazing things.

Learn more about PARC here.

Photo by Bill DeYoung.

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