Seasons change, the years come and go, but the need never goes away.
Children and adults with developmental disabilities require advocates, and attention, and inevitably some form of assistance. For 67 years, PARC (Providing Advocacy Recognizing Capabilities) has been Pinellas County’s ground zero for helping these individuals exercise their independence – and live their best lives.
Initially, PARC was an acronym for Pinellas Association for Retarded Children. That indelicate, non-PC mantle is also inaccurate – it doesn’t reflect the center’s expansive adult programs. So it’s been gone for a while.
According to President and CEO Michelle Detweiler, re-branding PARC for its next 67 years, and beyond, is part of the mission. And the mission, like the need, is ever-growing.
“I just feel very passionate about the population we serve,” Detweiler said. “It’s an invisible population.
“People don’t see them. And it’s a natural thing. It’s not a comfortable thing to say hello to someone that looks different or sounds different. So they’re ignored, a lot. And what joy it brings to me to be a part of their lives. It’s enriched my life, for sure.”
Detweiler’s link to PARC was hard-wired before she was even born. Her older sister, Leslie Muller, is developmentally challenged. “When she was 10, my parents had to put her in a state institution,” Detweiler recalled “And it was … not good.
“As a child, I remember going to visit her on the weekends, and my mother crying, and walking into 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 the Peter Pan School, the forerunner of PARC.
In 1963, he became its first executive director, a position he would hold for three decades. Muller negotiated the purchase of 10 acres in the Tyrone area from the City of St. Petersburg, and began to grow the PARC campus – as well as its reach, its programs and its population.
“My father was dynamic, and charismatic, and people were drawn to him,” said Detweiler. “He was able to raise the money needed to … well, to do what we’re doing today.”
Leslie was one of the center’s first full-time residents. At 63, she lives there to this day.
Michelle (Muller) Detweiler can’t remember a time when empathy, altruism and hope-giving weren’t part of her world. “There was always someone at our dinner table that was not part of our family,” she said, smiling at the memory. “Someone that supported PARC. Or someone that needed help.”
Bert Muller expanded his fundraising reach to include dinners, galas, performances, even a celebrity golf tournament. Eleven-year-old Michelle took one for the team – literally – when an errant ball hit her in the head during the 1977 tourney. She was comforted by Kojak actor Kevin Dobson, who sat her in his golf cat until a medic arrived to treat her.
The incident made the local paper, under the headline Painful moment at fun event.
The next morning, Detweiler’s fifth grade teacher made a comment that still bothers her: “He said ‘I hope it knocked some sense into you.’”
When she was 15, she went to work in the PARC Resale Shop on 66th Street. After graduation from St. Pete Catholic High School, and after receiving a BA in Public Relations from Jacksonville University, and a Master’s in Business Administration from Tampa College, she went to work as Director of Development for PARC, followed by turns at several other nonprofits including R’Club, the American Red Cross and the United Way.
She transitioned into the private sector, running Detweiler’s Propane Gas Service for more than 15 years. Leaving her now-ex-husband’s family business behind, she became Chief Operating Officer at PARC in 2018 (Bert Muller passed away in 2010).
At the end of September of this year, Detweiler was bumped up to President and Chief Executive Officer.
“Titles,” she explained, “do not matter to me. What matters to me is how much impact I can make, whether it’s COO, Development Director or President and CEO. I’ve never thought of my career as a climbing thing. It’s more like ‘What position can I have where I can truly be the loudest voice there is for what we’re doing?’”
Today’s PARC is a multi-tiered organization serving approximately 500 children and adults, with more than 40 specialized programs.
There are several children’s programs, starting with the original Discovery Learning Center; there are early intervention services, individualized therapies and an expansive early education curriculum. PARC also offers a “Respite” service, allowing parents and other at-home caregivers to take emotional and physical breaks as needs warrant.
Adults benefit from the Life Skills Development program, with a wide variety of structured activities, social interaction and skill-building opportunities. There is an art studio, a horticulture classroom, even a manufacturing floor where participants can earn competitive wages for assembly, packaging and shipping.
The Community Employment program prepares individuals for working in the community at large, promoting social integration and productivity, aiding with personal growth and self-confidence.
There’s a Supported Living program, two Medicaid Waiver group homes and two Intermediate Care Facilities for young teens and adults.
The current labor shortage has significantly impacted group residential homes, as many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities require round-the-clock care. In Florida, more than 100 such facilities have shut down since March.
PARC’s $17 million annual budget comes primarily from the Juvenile Welfare Board, the Early Learning Coalition, Florida Health and a few others. Community sponsors and private donations are frequent and welcomed.
Her biggest challenge, as Detweiler sees it, is getting PARC – nearly 70 years old now – into line with the 21st century.
Not surprisingly, money is at the root of the problem. “The government’s not going to give us any more money, so we have to raise more money,” she said. “Many of the people that work here – the frontliners – are not paid a living wage. And we have to change that.
“In order for me to sleep at night, I have to know we’re doing everything to change that. Our board is committed to it. Our leadership is committed to it. And we’ve made some progress in the last three years, but we need to do so much more.”
Then there’s the campus itself. “Our buildings are 40, 50 years old. Building One, with our children’s services, is our biggest priority now. We have to find a replacement, whether it’s finding somewhere in the community or partnering with another organization. I’m all about collaborating. We have to find a new space for our children’s services.
“We have been grandfathered in with licensing, but our classrooms are not the right size. We couldn’t open that school today, with the way it’s designed. We can’t serve the need because of this. We can’t get accredited because of the building.”
She wonders out loud if state government lacks the necessary focus on the needs of those in the troubled foster care system (“which we’re not involved with”), and children and adults with disabilities. “There are a lot of things preventing us from serving more people,” she said.
Still, the employees – several of whom have been with PARC since the 1980s and ‘90s – remain dedicated. Michelle Detweiler considers them, as well as the residents, regulars and program participants, part of her own family. Part of Bert Muller’s family.
“I remember my father telling me ‘Michelle, it always works out.’ And he’s right,” she said. “I do believe that as long as we do what we do, it does work out.
“And as long as we have the right people in place, we will be able to continue on. Because we’re doing amazing things.”
Learn more about PARC here.