Polk Training Center in Lake Alfred
By Steve Steiner

It’s a secret that shouldn’t be, especially after coming into existence in 1986 at the instigation of parents concerned for the future well-being of their developmentally disabled/intelligently disabled (DD/ID) sons and daughters once they aged out of the Polk County Public Schools system. These proactive parents were concerned how their offspring would be able to survive as they, the parents, aged and subsequently would have adult children who needed to live as independently as possible.

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Polk Training Center is an adult school for developmentally disabled adults. There is a plant nursery on the grounds of the school, which helps support the school and provides opportunities for training the students. Learning, employment, and independence is the mission of the Polk Training Center (PTC) and the main way it strives toward that mission is through the establishment of its nursery, located on 10 acres on 111 Creek Road in Lake Alfred.

About the Polk Training Center

A bus arrives every morning at 8 a.m., transporting the students, currently 26 in all. For an hour, until 9 a.m., the students receive life training lessons. It is a challenge, especially as it requires constant repetition. At its extreme, some of these students don’t even know how to open and close a self-sealing plastic baggie. Others don’t know what to do in case of emergency, to call 911.

Those who are able to work in the nursery, currently seven to eight of them, are taught how to be responsible employees. After all, even though PTC is a not-for-profit, it is not government funded and is a self-supporting business that also depends on grants and contributions.

When PTC began in the 1980s, it chose the nursery and landscaping business. Hundreds of plants and trees are available for purchase, including annuals, bedding plants, perennials, vines, hedges, shrubs, shade and flowering trees. Gardening supplies such as bagged mulch, pine straw, top soil, and manure are also available.

In the past, PTC has also supported itself by providing landscape design, installation, and refurbishment services. Currently, those services are suspended until further notice due to recent financial hurdles.

Hurdles: Awareness, Funding, and Inclement Weather

But say Polk Training Center to people in Polk County and most people will draw a blank, according to Sherrie Holbook, executive director of PTC, who knows firsthand only all too well. She’s encountered that time and again in the seven years she has been at the helm.

“What’s needed is community involvement,” says Holbrook, who wishes that more people were aware of the center and its purpose: teaching life skills, and for those who are able, employment in a rewarding engaging job, where they can earn income and engage in life. But she has hope that the center will survive the rough financial patches.

“I am a person of faith and I have seen miracles here, but sometimes individuals have to be instrumental in successful growth,” says Holbrook. “I’m concerned with the lack of community support for our students — who are Polk Training Center. If things continue to digress, one day people will wonder what happened to that nursery and all those special people there.”

There is another factor at play and that is a change in the way the Federal and State government has decided to allocate funding via a regulation known as WIOA, a government initiative involving the Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD) that tries to (quoting from its own statement:) “… reduce the use of shelter workshops and other noncompetitive employment day activities and promote opportunities for gainful employment for persons with developmental disabilities who choose to seek such employment.”

Supported Employment is a great idea in concept, but not always in practice, believes Holbrook. If anything, it has served as an impediment. Supported employment would be a great opportunity for higher functioning DD/ID individuals, but there is a large population who will not be able to achieve a “career” or “mainstream” employment.

As a result, the monies that would have been directed to DD/ID persons, funding assistance for Polk Training Center and other similar not-for-profit non-governmental organizations, is instead going to government employees and/or subcontractors, to try and place students coming out of high school transitioning into jobs.

Another “wrinkle” is that the Polk Training Center is not a free service. It costs approximately $300,000 per year to operate. It covers a number of costs, including that of teachers and staff who are more like family on a mission.

From Holbrook’s understanding, talking and questioning APD support personnel, much of APD and Vocational Rehab assistance will be offered to graduating high school students who receive what is called Med-Waiver. Med-waiver – iBudget funds the services offered for employment placement services. The waiting list is more than 21,000 people across the state, and a number of them have been on a waiting list for decades, and barring an emergency, may never see the Med-Waiver benefits for decades more. PTC and similar non-profit organizations are mandated not to hire anyone under 24 years of age until they have been processed through and released by Vocational Rehab.

This past year the (pun intended) weather has blown PTC away, literally, beginning with Hurricane Irma. The revenue PTC generates comes primarily from the nursery, contract sales, and when possible landscaping.

“The hurricane destroyed our houses, and we lost a lot of plants due to the fact we were out of electric for watering over a six day period,” Holbrook wrote in a March 2 letter to caregivers, students, and staff. The houses she referred to were shade / greenhouses. All that remains are the frames. The protective coverings and irrigation systems were totally obliterated.

That wasn’t the only destruction as the weather dealt a double whammy to the PTC nursery. Without cover, this winter’s freezes killed a number of plants, despite the effort to cover as many plants as possible. Thus, without plants to sell, there is limited revenue as they seek to build back.

While Holbrook has written a grant to Givewell for a generator to avoid power and water failure in the future; plus filing insurance claims that have paid some money for the greenhouses destroyed (but not the plants); plus having filed with FEMA (and meeting weekly with its representatives the past three months), which will only reimburse PTC 75 percent of the estimate — minus the deduction of the insurance reimbursement.  All this aside, it has proven unsuccessful getting a contractor to repair and replace what’s needed to re-establish the greenhouses.

To cite the late N.Y. Yankee great Yogi Berra, “It’s like deja vu all over again.” By that, it’s a daunting challenge Holbrook faces. When she arrived seven years ago to take over for her predecessor, PTC was on the verge of closing down entirely. She fears that possibly happening, if not today, potentially several years down the road. That would be a disaster for the students, and examples were offered.

One student who had made progress at PTC ended up staying home for months at a time watching television due to a family situation. As a result, when she would return, almost all of her progress was lost.

“You could tell,” says Seth Holbrook, sub-teacher / landscape manager for PTC. “That’s because she didn’t have the stimulation to keep her engaged.”

“I feel the developmentally disabled and the intelligently disabled are a discarded part of society,” he says. “These people need a voice.”

Should the Polk Training Center close, it will have ramifications on the students, says Sherri Holbrook.

“We’re here to serve those who are DD/ID,” she says. “What they’re facing is not having a place to go, engage, and feel productive.”

Returning to the issue of “mainstreaming, over the years, according to Holbrook, highly functional DD/ID persons are less visible in public employment. It saddens her. “I want them to have those opportunities the rest of us are entitled to,” she says.

Having received donations over the years, in addition to the nursery sales, PTC did well until about 2008 and the Great Recession. As a result, plus this past year’s weather disasters combined with the re-allocation of funding, it has become necessary to cut back on hours at the nursery.

Today the PTC nursery is open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. And weather-permitting, the nursery is open the first and third Saturdays of the month.

The Polk Training Center is located at 111 Creek Road in Lake Alfred. Its mailing address is P.O. Box 1620. It is also on Facebook. For more info visit PolkTrainingCenter.org or contact 863-956-1620. A donation button (via Paypal) is on the website.