by Sean McManus
The story actually begins in the 1700s, during what Pine Castle executive director Jon May said was a worldwide movement to institutionalize people with mental disabilities, and gloomy, draconian asylums were built as a side note to medical progress.
“This was the time when Calvinism was spreading in Europe,” said May, “and these people were considered unproductive.”
Now, fast forward to 2002 and the 50th anniversary of the largest and most successful training center for people with developmental disabilities in Northeast Florida.
Founded in 1952 as a grassroots effort by about 30 families who had mentally handicapped children, Pine Castle has evolved into an organization for over 300 disabled adults (participants or clients) who, by all accounts, are totally productive.
From its inception, Pine Castle has been more than just a physical place designed for those who, by birth, have developmental disabilities. It also represents the global shift in the way people with mental disabilities are viewed, treated and encouraged to assimilate into the community. Named after the Australian pines that grew on this 10-acre plot of former farmland on Spring Park Road off Emerson, Pine Castle is a pioneer in upgrading the way normal society reacts to the mentally challenged.
While there are still old-style institutions in operation today, and two in Florida, when Pine Castle started in the 1950s, people were just beginning to embrace the concept of promoting self-sufficiency over providing just basic needs. Doctors and psychologists began to recognize that the mentally handicapped — and society at large — could benefit from special education and sheltered training in community settings.
The state and federal government slowly began to change the way they allocated funds for people with developmental disabilities, and by the early-1960s, it became mandatory for the school system to educate “all children.” That signaled the switch inside Pine Castle from educating children to training adults.
The success has been staggering. Across the nation, there is less dependence on family, state and federal support as more people are taking care of themselves, and 85 percent of Pine Castle’s clients work on-site performing contract work for local companies. Some would say it has placed value on lives that were once not considered valuable, and enriched the lives of others, too.
“Our central mission is to be a bridge to the community,” said May. “We want to maximize the ability for our clients to live and work independently.”
Functioning as a center for adults, Pine Castle, over the years evolved from having a recreational focus to a focus on real work, vocational training and job placement. Clients are paid training wages based on ability and the work they do is a visible and economic expression of how much progress has been made making mentally disabled adults mainstream.
“Making the switch from children to adults is a tough transition,” said May. “It’s a harder sell.”
But steady progress was made, stereotypes were reversed, legislation was passed. Serving post-high school adults from ages 22-70, over half of Pine Castle’s $4 million comes from state funds; 25 percent comes from the work service’s contracts. The rest comes from the United Way, the City, Vocational Rehabilitation and other public and private fundraising efforts.
“Over the years, the employment concept has changed,” explained May.
Pine Castle went from a system called sheltered employment, where there wasn’t a great deal of training, to what’s called “supported employment,” where employees mostly served as brokers to match people with jobs. Now, they are a “facility-based work and training experience” that offers a comprehensive approach to improving life and work skills.
One of the other major shifts in policy that effected the mentally disabled was that clients of the system began to have individual bank accounts that followed them around wherever they went. Legislators, knowing that there is a tremendous amount of transitioning that occurs as you move amongst school, center and home, passed laws that meant people don’t lose and gain benefits arbitrarily.
Pine Castle, under the supervision of the client’s family and a social worker, helps manage accounts and dispense with funds as appropriate. Since then, Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration has even initiated programs to get people off waiting lists and into effective centers.
In an atmosphere that encouraged greater financial independence and a more structured means of dispensing income, Pine Castle grew.
Two group homes were built on adjacent property in 1978. Since then, they have built group homes on and around San Jose Boulevard and they are always dreaming about more. Thirty-five Pine Castle clients now live in group homes with full-time staff. Of course, there is a waiting list.
The staff at Pine Castle hovers around 95 who oversee the 65 percent of Pine Castle clients who have some form of Alzheimer’s. A working definition for developmental disorders, in this context, includes autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome.
Regardless, Pine Castle has contracts that have spanned over 10 years with companies such as Vistakon, Bank of America, Hartley Press and BellSouth, where Pine Castle clients have the contract to make most of the phone company’s outside interface boxes, attaching the 200 feet of cable and assembling the case. The lumber department cuts and bundles the stakes that are used during construction projects — a big business in Jacksonville. Pine Castle has contracts with over 80 local companies.
Ken Tocco, production manager at Ja-Ru, a local importer of toys from Asia, hires Pine Castle’s clients to price toys and place stickers like inventory codes and bar codes on toys, said that Pine Castle often “bails them out” when demand is too great and they can’t meet orders.
Deborah Thompson, vice president and COO of the African-American Chamber of Commerce, said that she is consistently impressed with the level and professionalism of Pine Castle.
“They are very helpful,” said Thompson. “And they do great work.”
Thompson hires Pine Castle to fold, stamp and package a mailer that goes out to 2000 prospective members every month.
All of this revolves around a philosophy that seeks to empower the people who are a part of Pine Castle and support their ability to live lives as similar to the rest of us as possible.
A big proponent of that philosophy is May. Originally from Chicago and a Dartmouth graduate, May joined Pine Castle 14 years ago from the children’s services division of the State of Florida. He has a bachelor’s degree in counseling from the University of North Florida, and still does a little private counseling, most of which reflects his work at Pine Castle.
Patrick Mayhew is the executive director of L’Arche Harbor House, a group home for the developmentally disabled near Jacksonville University where, since its inception, the majority of residents (or core members) have been employed by Pine Castle during the day. He said the two organizations train together and feed off of each other’s experiences and intellectual capital.
Speaking about Pine Castle, Mayhew said the amount of individual attention that they receive there gives the Harbor House people an added, rewarding experience.
“It takes uniquely gifted people to work with those who have mental disabilities,” said Mayhew. “Pine Castle has a tremendous amount of those people.”
With the help of increased public and private support, May said he has been able to retain top talent when it used to be impossible to hire qualified people for the job of dealing with the mentally disabled.
Capital improvements over the years, funded privately, have included an athletic field where 200 Pine Castle clients train for the Special Olympics. They play soccer, track and field and basketball. They also have regular exercise. They are working on a new fundraising campaign and are hoping to build a large, multi-purpose gym for the disabled this year.
The Meninak Club built two of its buildings, the Sertoma Club built the conference room, CSX built their warehouse, the Rotary, its woodshop, and the Uptown Civitan Club recently built its covered picnic pavilion.
For the last 50 years, Pine Castle has been making scrapbooks with pictures, articles, and souvenirs that bring each of the years to life. Foam-core boards with those scrapbooks are up for display in the administrative building, where the staff meets to plan schedules and activities and training workshops. In 1954, they raised money through a milk delivery drive.
In November, Pine Castle is throwing itself a 50th Anniversary Gala. Previous mayors of Jacksonville will be there to help celebrate, honor patrons, and raise more money for capital improvements.
Asked if Pine Castle clients would be at the black-tie event, May said, sure. “That is, after all, the whole idea.”