TAMPA — At home, she plays her keyboard and sings. She watches DVDs, like The Black Stallion, and loves just about every Disney movie ever made.
She hasn't bought many lately, though.
Donna Raulerson has been scrimping for a year now for a special Christmas gift to herself.
She has saved $60.
"She thinks she's rich right now," said Sonia Wright.
Raulerson is 59 and developmentally disabled. Wright, a supported living coach, works with her at the MacDonald Training Center, where Raulerson spends her weekdays. There, people who are developmentally disabled work on job and life skills aimed to make them as independent as possible.
Raulerson sometimes earns money, but not much. There are weeks when her paycheck is 54 cents. No matter the amount, she gets excited every time she gets a check. Her Social Security checks cover housing, food and other necessities.
Raulerson grew up in South Tampa with her parents, two brothers and a younger sister, who died at 13 of pneumonia.
Her mother died of cirrhosis. "Mom's face turned yellow," Raulerson says.
Her father died in a truck accident.
Fifty years ago, people like her languished at home or were institutionalized. Mothers were told to tell relatives their baby had died.
"You can still see the effects on some of the older individuals," said Rita Hattab, community relations coordinator for the training center.
As Hattab walks through the center, workers grin as they package SunPass transponders. Others wrap government posters. The jobs come through contracts that the center secures to help train people like Raulerson for work.
She first came to the center on Cypress Street 42 years ago. At some point, she moved into the organization's residential program.
Raulerson counts pennies on a worksheet in a small room. Next to her, a friend matches markers by color to the corresponding lids.
This is life skills. Sometimes they work on computers. Sometimes they make art, like the yellow sunflowers Raulerson painted.
She is shy with strangers, but once you get to know her, she loosens up to talk about her favorite movies and the Buccaneers.
At the North Tampa home she shares with two roommates, she's a bit of a mother hen. She makes sure they eat lunch. A support person comes daily to help with medications and cooking. When they have a substitute, Raulerson makes sure things run smoothly.
Some things, however, she doesn't understand.
Like why her friends will likely be able to take a Christmas trip to Disney World this year, but she won't.
That's what she has been saving for. But her $60 won't even cover admission. The two-day chaperoned trip will cost each person about $450.
Her housemates have raised more money than Raulerson either because they have the ability to complete more work at the center or because their disability checks are larger.
Last year, they went to Disney while Raulerson stayed home. She has never stayed in a hotel.
Throughout the evolution of treatment standards for disabled people, Raulerson has lived in group homes with as many as 60 others who were disabled, Hattab said.
She is comfortable in her home now and likes being able to make choices about her life.
But she remembers at least one highlight from her days in a group home. Twenty years ago, she took a field trip. They got on a bus and headed to Orlando. There, she saw her favorite character, Mickey Mouse.
She hasn't been back since.
"I want to ride a merry-go-round and the teacups," she said last week, and then whispered, "no rides that go high."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.