After serving the area for 70 years, the Parc Center for Disabilities is undergoing what Michelle Detweiler called a rebirth.
Detweiler, the St. Petersburg stalwart’s president and CEO, now needs the community’s support as she embarks on an ambitious expansion nearly a decade in the making.
Parc officials recently overcame zoning issues and received the St. Petersburg Development Review Commission’s approval to demolish a nearly 60-year-old building and build a new Children’s Service Center. However, the most significant hurdle remains – raising about $8.5 million for a $10 million project.
“We have such deep-rooted support in the City of St. Petersburg; that helps in a time like this,” Detweiler said. “People know our history, so they want to help us. Between individuals and corporations, we’re working with a lot of different people right now to secure that support.”
Parc welcomed its first 10 kids with developmental and intellectual disabilities in 1953. The organization has grown alongside St. Petersburg, and its campus now encompasses 10 acres along Tyrone Boulevard.
Over 320 employees serve about 540 people daily. The preschool building opened in 1968.
Parc officials believe its age and configuration hinder their ability to support children with “profound disabilities” who need additional aides and adaptive equipment. Many also require nursing care.
The project’s proposal states that current classroom sizes cannot accommodate teacher-to-student ratios needed for “optimal educational and developmental outcomes.” Detweiler said entering the archaic building “is truly like walking back in time.”
“We’ve done really well managing it over the last 50 years,” she added. “But … the cost to maintain it is exorbitant. The board has been working on this decision for, honestly, 10 years.”
They decided constructing a new, state-of-the-art facility is more efficient than continuously renovating and upgrading the current building. The new Childhood Center would encompass 14,000 square feet and provide larger classrooms and tailored therapy spaces.
It would enable Parc officials to enhance educational, therapeutic, early intervention and caregiver relief services for kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Three playgrounds specially designed for children with sensory challenges are other project highlights.
Detweiler noted that even the building’s walls would incorporate “sensory-friendly” aspects. While the facility will provide additional space, she said the focus is increasing programming quality.
St. Petersburg city officials, who Detweiler called “amazing partners,” donated the land for Parc’s main campus in the 1960s. The organization’s leadership purchased an additional parcel about a block to the west in 1985.
However, the site underwent zoning changes that presented the project’s first roadblock. Detweiler said that after a five-month delay, and with the help of city administrators, Parc can operate under the previous land-use agreement.
“We did a lot of research and felt pretty confident about it,” she said. “It worked, so we’re pretty happy about that.”
The organization received $1.5 million in state funding earlier this year to begin construction. Detweiler plans to move administrative services out of the former preschool building by Thanksgiving and break ground on the new site in spring 2024.
Preschool children now attend classes in another area, and she said there would be no interruptions during the demolition and construction process.
Detweiler noted that Parc’s leadership worked extensively over the past two years to reach this point. They now need the community’s help to get the project over the finish line.
A draft case statement for the funding campaign states that children attending Parc’s Discovery Learning Preschool met 96% to 100% of the Teaching Strategies Gold evaluation expectations last year. In addition, 85% achieved the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program (VPK) goals.
Parc’s Caregiver Relief program has a 98% success rate in mitigating child abuse, neglect and foster care placements. According to the case statement, the new Children Services Center “will be a flagship for our entire community and position Parc as a leader … throughout Florida and the southeastern United States.”
Detweiler expressed confidence that Parc’s impact over seven decades would help garner the necessary funding. She called celebrating a 70th anniversary and moving a long-awaited project forward in the same year “a dream come true.”
“I look at this as kind of a rebirthing,” Detweiler said. “We’re extremely successful, and this shows our community that we’re still here, we’re sustainable and we’re ready to go. There are so many needs, and I get calls every day from families that need services for our children.
“And we’ll be here for another 70 years.”