President Ronald Reagan proclaimed Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month in 1987. The proclamation called upon all Americans to provide support and opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD)to reach their potential. The idea that individuals with I/DD could be productive contributors in the workforce was relatively new.

Each March, the Key Training Center works to highlight and create awareness for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).  They campaign for the inclusion in all facets of community life and understand the barriers that people with disabilities still sometimes face in connecting to the communities.

One of the many challenges facing people with I/DD is the shortage of suitable housing.  Melissa Walker, Key Training Center Executive Director, learned in 2013 that Florida Housing was appointed to distribute appropriated grant funds to finance the construction of Permanent Supportive Housing Developments for Persons with Developmental Disabilities.  2.7 million dollars was awarded to the Key Center to construct seven homes throughout Citrus County.   Provide loving, nurturing, and safe environments for adults with I/DD. Each house has six bedrooms with private bathrooms providing residential services to a total of forty-two adults, with many that were on a long waiting list for housing services. Currently, the Key Training Center has been serving Citrus County for 55 years.  They operate 18 homes and four apartment complexes located throughout the County serving 145 residents with I/DD at varying levels to include mild, moderate, severe, and profound.

Employment is another obstacle that people with I/DD face. The Key Center’s Supported Employment Program provides job coaching to these individuals supporting successful gainful employment. “We help change preconceptions by advocating for client abilities, educate the general public that work is meaningful to individuals with I/DD, and we that should celebrate varied contributions of American workers with disabilities,” according to Bethany Carpenter, Supported Employment Coach.

This year’s new venture for the Key Center is the City Garden on Martin Luther King Boulevard, offering educational programs on-site. Walker enthusiastically embraced the opportunity. “This gives our program participants the ability to acquire knowledge in horticulture and ‘farm to table’ concepts; have meaningful day activities in a hands-on educational setting; with the potential of expanding the program in the future to include Supported Employment.”  The project, already in full swing, has been hugely successful.  According to Barbara Branch, Key Center Day Services Director, “We were surprised at how many of our guys wanted to participate in the project. They love seeing the fruits of their labors as they watch their plants grow and thrive.  One of our missions at the Key is to promote and support inclusion between people with I/DD and the general public.  For us, the interaction between our clients and community gardeners is gratifying and reinforces their desire to become more included in their community.

“People with I/DD are among the most vulnerable among us,” said Melissa Walker. “It’s been tough this last year with COVID-19.  Our clients have been semi-isolated to prevent exposure to COVID-19. Our staff has worked diligently to create opportunities for safe social interactions to reduce the client’s stress. They, and their families, have shown incredible resilience and are an inspiration for all of us.”

According to Hope Selander, Development and Community Relations Manager, “Our biggest challenge in today’s world is ensuring that the knowledge we have is reaching those who don’t know. At the Key Training Center, we live every day focusing on those with I/DD but have realized there is always room for improvement in spreading awareness.  We hope that by each event we put on, each piece of literature we produce and distribute, each story of our clients we tell- we will be sharing their stories and will impact someone.”

 “Our hope throughout March is that residents of Citrus County develop a connection to this vulnerable population and pursue opportunities to get to know, advocate, and include them. It is the promise for a bright future that motivates the Key Center and its staff to work on their behalf to make the world more inclusive for people of all abilities.  The Key Center showcases the excellent work done to celebrate and improve lives,” said Walker.

The Key Center began in 1966, where the need for their services was overwhelming in Citrus County.  Since the beginning, they have served over 2,000 individuals with disabilities and have no intention of slowing down. All fundraising efforts go to support scholarships for the approximate 40 individuals each year that do not receive funds for all of their services they need. The Key Training Center does not discriminate against any person, which includes their ability to pay.

Everyone can do more to include all abilities. For more information on how you can participate in all Key Training Center activities, follow the Key Training Center on Facebook @ Key Training Center, sign up for the Key Center’s emails, and attend fundraisers.  Be aware of activity going on in the Legislature, such as ‘Pay Fair for Care’ and visit their website at www.keytrainingcenter.org or call (352) 795-5541 Ext 312.

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