Longtime Loveland Center participants Ronnie Ebanks, 54, and Tina Valenca, 51, often have classes together, and this Friday they share first-period Academics. Ronnie is a redhead—stout, placid, a lover of country and Western music who favors khaki trousers and T-shirts. Tina has wavy silver-and-pepper hair and an eye for coordinating her colorful jewelry and clothes. Today her shorts are topped with a bright-yellow blouse emblazoned with a flamingo. Because of congenital hip dysplasia (a mismatch of ball and socket), she didn’t walk until she was 6, and now, with arthritis, she uses a walker. As they and a half dozen classmates saunter in from morning assembly, Ronnie confides, “In my apartment, I’ve got cable.”

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Tina and Ronnie Ebanks practice their musical skills, led by teacher “Mr. Ken” Arambasick.

Image: Gene Pollux

As usual, instructor Ken Arambasick—Mr. Ken—picks up his guitar and opens class with the “Hello” song. Students join in, greeting each other by name with a verse.

One young man accompanies on the harmonica; Ronnie pulls a maraca from a cubby and adds percussion. “He’s got phenomenal rhythm,” says Mr. Ken.

Next, everyone faces the board: Always believe in yourself and your dreams. “You’ve got to believe in your mind and your heart,” says Mr. Ken.

After the class discusses the next major holiday and the word of the week—courage (“the ability to do something when you are afraid”)—Mr. Ken pulls out a mirror. “Look at that beautiful person in the mirror and say, ‘I am awesome,’” he instructs. Ronnie and Tina take their turns, and then the group launches into another song, Mr. Ken on keyboard, Ronnie on maraca, the chorus swelling: 

“You are awesome. You are amazing every day. You can do it. You are going to do great things.”

As the Loveland staff knows, these men and women need this endless stream of positive messages. For eons, society has expected little and thought less of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), which include spina bifida, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome. Ronnie and Tina come from loving homes, but that’s not always the case.

“We have had individuals who were kept in sheds or closets because their parents were embarrassed,” says Loveland Center chief development officer Rafael Robles. For many families, he says, “It’s tough to reconcile what should have been with what is.”

A half century of encouragement

I/DD students age out of the public-school system at 22. As services end, so do the social connections for many parents and students. “By this stage,” Robles notes, “often parents are tired.” And the question looms, “How will my child manage when I can no longer provide care?” In decades past, I/DD people often did not outlive their parents, but these days, they’re living longer, so that question haunts many families. 

For more than 50 years, Loveland Center in Venice has offered its clients options for adulthood. Job coaches in the EmployAbilities Program help interested clients land full- and part-time paid positions. Instructors like Mr. Ken staff the Adult Day Training (ADT) program, which runs from 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and serves about 135 participants ranging in age from 30 to over 60.

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Tina Valenca and classmate Jeri Johnson hard at work in Applied Academics.

Image: Gene Pollux

In June, the Nancy Detert Residences at Loveland Village opened next door. The residences are a collaboration between the Loveland Center, which helped raise construction funds, and CASL, Inc., which manages the property. Each of the three two-story mint-green buildings surrounds a grassy courtyard. The locks on the gates recognize residents’ fingerprints. According to CASL CEO Scott Eller, rents for the 42 one-to-four-bedroom units range from $232-$440, affordable to residents surviving on Social Security disability payments and some supplemental jobs. As each building opened, the apartments filled within days. Now the wait list stretches to 45.

Among the first to move in were Ronnie and Tina. Each lives in a four-bedroom, two-bath unit with two suitemates and a full-time resident caregiver paid with Medicaid waiver funds, which cover care in community-based settings instead of institutions.

“It took a little while for all of us to acclimate to our new roles,” says Helen Valenca, Tina’s mother. After living at home for five decades, Tina scowled at sharing a bathroom, says her primary caregiver, Terry Cheeseman, but she learned to communicate. Of the three residents in the suite, Tina “has done the most growth,” says Cheeseman. The Valencas reminded Tina that they live just 10 minutes away, and Tina can come home whenever she wants. “Soon we started hearing, ‘I’d like to stay here this weekend and be with my friends,’” her mother says with a laugh. “Or I’ll call her, and she’ll say, ‘I can’t talk long because I’m going to the clubhouse to do Zumba or play bingo.’”


Bill of Rights

Loveland Center has helped prepare Ronnie and Tina for this new independence. Ronnie has Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder in which a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21 leads to low muscle tone, small stature and mild to moderate cognitive disability. He was born in Tampa and attended a Hillsborough County special education program, which informed his parents that he was “trainable but not educable.”

“I didn’t expect that much from Ronnie, which is sad to say,” explains his mother, Billie Ebanks, recently widowed and now in her 80s. “I regret that I didn’t teach him myself.”

Similarly, New York state public schools underestimated Tina, her mother says. In addition to the physical challenges of her hips and a spine curved by scoliosis and kyphosis, Tina is developmentally delayed with some autistic tendencies. In school, she plateaued at a third-grade level. “But she’s capable of more,” says Helen Valenca. In the 1960s and ’70s, almost no one was pushing literacy or other academic goals for kids with I/DD.

For the Ebankses, who moved south decades ago, and the Valencas, who moved to Venice in 2000, Loveland Center has offered their adult children possibilities beyond home or a sheltered workshop. Based on individual goals, Adult Day Training participants design their own schedules, two to five days a week. They also pick their three daily activities, from art to academics, cooking to chorus. Every other week, Sprouts Farmers Market sends a truck with free fruits and vegetables to “buy.” Participants can join the book club or the restaurant reviewing squad; they sign up for outings to Rays games, the Siesta Key drum circle, or the New Kids on the Block concert; they organize and attend dances.

“Loveland promotes choice,” says ADT program manager Becky Forest.

Coached by Loveland, Ronnie worked mornings at Sharky’s on the Pier for more than two decades until he strained his lower back and retired recently.

“I miss it,” he confesses. Mornings he tidied tables on the covered deck, emptied garbage, and swept the bathroom. “I loved cleaning the dirty plates,” he says. He still has high season on his calendar. “Now the snowbirds are going to come back,” he says.

In retirement, he spends four days a week at ADT. On Tuesday, his day off, his caregiver takes him swimming at the YMCA or the beach. “I dive to the bottom of the sea,” Ronnie says. “Sometimes I go by Sharky’s.”

Tina attends ADT full time. “My favorite free time is doing math in academics,” she says. “And Mavis Beacon [typing] in the computer lab. And beading.”

“It’s a stimulating program,” says Helen Valenca. “Students are learning new things. They talk about world events. It’s made Tina more aware. She knows, ‘I have to take responsibility for my actions.’”

“Success is different for every student,” notes Robles. For a student lacking hand-eye coordination, for instance, just tracing letters may mark a new level of achievement. Participants needing higher levels of support than Ronnie or Tina stay within a self-contained classroom.

Back in first-period Academics, Mr. Ken reviews the rights posted widely around campus. Ronnie raises his hand to read No. 1. “The right to …” He stops.

Mr. Ken helps. “Dignity. To be treated with respect.”

Mr. Ken defines religious freedom, “to go to any church you want.”

“That’s my goal,” says Ronnie.

“Or not go at all,” adds Mr. Ken. “Remember, even if you move out of Florida, these rights go with you.”

“They always go with you, if you live in North or South Carolina,” Tina concurs.

The list continues: communication, personal possessions. “You can keep and use things you like,” Mr. Ken says.

“My stuff,” Ronnie says.

“Like your CDs,” Mr. Ken says.

From a shelf, Ronnie pulls out a favorite, Jimmy Fortune Hits & Hymns.

The group discusses education and training (“the right to learn things”), medical treatment (“you can see a doctor or dentist when you need one”), and leisure-time activities.

“Like Movie of the Month,” Ronnie says, referring to a Loveland Village activity—a screening with two pieces of pizza and a drink, included in the monthly recreation fee of $50, or $5 for residents who just want to drop in.

Discussing the right to physical exercise, Ronnie pats his belly. “You lose weight,” he says. Mr. Ken asks who has participated in Special Olympics, and hands shoot into the air. “I bowl,” Ronnie says.

Community activities make the Loveland Center list of rights, as do humane discipline (“If you break rules, no one will hurt you”), freedom from physical restraint, and voting.

“I vote for Trump,” Ronnie says.

And the right to a minimum wage—

“You have to get more than $8 per hour,” Tina interjects.

Friends and Follies

During the break, Ronnie and Tina make their way back to the cafeteria, the hub of ADT, a large room with long tables and lockers. The day begins here, students arriving in SCAT Plus vans or family cars. Residents of Loveland Village like Ronnie and Tina walk over. Morning assembly features the Pledge of Allegiance, date and weather, songs, tai chi moves, and announcements of birthdays and field trips—to Comic Con in Tampa, for instance, or InStride Therapy in Nokomis, to ride horses. During breaks between activities, participants sit, snack and chat.

Tina and Sharon go way back. Sharon remembers that Tina felt down when she first started at the Loveland Center at its old campus, and no one picked her for shuffleboard. Sharon bucked her up.

“When she’s down, she knows she can come talk to me,” Sharon says. “Friends always take care of friends.”

“We used to ride the bus together,” Tina says.

“We kind of miss that,” Sharon says.

“We’re neighbors,” Tina says.

“We’re choir buddies,” adds Sharon.

Over the years, they’ve both performed in the Loveland Follies, an annual musical production staged at Venice Theatre. Show posters cover the walls around the cafeteria. “One of the staff calls me a songbird,” Tina says.

Helen Valenca recalls that Tina was “wide-eyed” when she attended her first Follies. Several years later she starred as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Her parents started called her “Diva.”

Her brother traveled to see the show, and her mother says she’ll never forget Tina strutting into the lobby in costume after the curtain calls, hands on her hips.

“Well, what do you think of me now?” she demanded.

Her brother answered, “I think you’re amazing.”

Back to Class

“What does serving size mean?” instructor Linda Walker asks her Health & Safety class. She models the answer, reading aloud the nutrition labels on boxes and jars and demonstrating. A tablespoon of peanut butter, for instance, is “about the size of your thumb.” Next, she has students guess how many Corn Chex she should pour into the bowl to make a cup.

“My father put the whole bottle of sugar in his coffee,” Ronnie confides. Then he points skyward. “My father is up there. I miss him.”

As Ms. Linda talks hamburgers—“a deck of cards”—and salad—“two fists—your fist is your friend”—Ronnie lists some of his favorite foods: mango juice, skim milk, red grapes. Also Honey Nut Cheerios. And tacos and burritos, but not spicy. His caregiver, Angela, cooks him vegetables and fish and takes him to the Y to work out, he says.

“I do exercise,” Ronnie explains. “I do the treadmill at my parents’ house. I’m going to lose my weight.”

He raises his hand and tells Ms. Linda that he has bad news. “Abad ate his lunch at break time.”

Ms. Linda’s radio crackles: a lockdown drill. She pulls the blinds, locks the door, turns off the light, quiets the room. “I don’t like the dark,” Ronnie says.

Over the radio, each instructor checks in that all participants are accounted for. Michelle begins to cry. Her classmates and Ms. Linda reassure her. Lockdowns are common, Ms. Linda says, often triggered by a raccoon crossing campus. Today it’s a quick, fierce thunderstorm.

“I’m not scared,” Ronnie says.

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Artwork made by Loveland Center students gives them a chance to express their creativity.

Home at the end of the day

From the Lamoureux Family Clubhouse to the David Hunihan Family apartments, almost every building at Loveland Village has a name on it. (The same is true of Loveland Center.) Both Loveland Center development officer Robles and CASL property management CEO Eller heap thanks on the donors who have contributed to the construction and maintenance of the Village. “One of the barriers to housing for most people [with I/DD] is money,” says Eller. “A preponderance of residents are extremely low income. We’re talking 35 percent of the area’s median income. You can’t finance [a complex like this] from rents.” 

Like Loveland Center, the Village strikes a balance between independence and safety that reassures parents. From the security to the social infrastructure, “It is a wonderful place,” says Billie Ebanks. After years as a busy parent volunteer on the Loveland Center entertainment committee, she’s grateful that she can step back. “Ronnie seems content,” she says. Her other son plans to move to the area to “be here for Ronnie” and “monitor his care.”

“We are not going to live forever,” says Helen Valenca. She’s 76, her husband 82. “You never know what’s next,” she says, and Tina’s positive experience at Loveland “lessens the stress.”

Depending upon the level of support they need, residents usually have both a live-in caregiver, hired through an agency and often shared, and an individual coach who helps with finances, medical care and other arrangements. Terry Cheeseman says Tina’s apartment runs like a family. Once a week, she sits down with the three women in her charge to plan dinner menus (each chooses two entrées—meatloaf and stuffed peppers, for example), and then she drives them to the nearby Publix in her car to shop for ingredients.

“You have to be dedicated,” Cheeseman says. “We do it because we love them.”

In his apartment, Ronnie shows off the amenities: fully stocked fridge with a bottom freezer, washer and dryer, a great room with comfy chairs and a dinner table. But his favorite stop on the tour is his bedroom.

The decor reflects Ronnie’s country fandom, with a poster of Garth Brooks on the wall and, near his boombox, a bookcase full of CDs. On top stands his bowling trophy from the 1994 Special Olympics. He points to the TV and says he enjoys horror movies. He adds, “I’m paying my cable.”

He opens the closet to display a shipshape line of shirts on hangers.

What’s the best part of living in Loveland Village?

Like any self-respecting adult, Ronnie answers without hesitation. “I like my own space.”

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