Rodney Greene likes to tell stories of growing up in Palmetto Beach and then in Brandon, where his parents had a small farm. • He remembers riding a tricycle that fell apart and playing with farm animals and pets, especially cats. His favorite was Little Bit, a yellow-striped kitten his aunt gave him. • These days, Greene, 66, still likes cats. There are six at the MacDonald Training Center in Plant City, where Greene spends his weekdays. • One named Magpie likes him, too. "She's soft as a drift in the snow," said Greene, who noted that he once saw snow on a trip to Michigan to visit an aunt. • Greene is mentally disabled and lives in an apartment near the center with two friends and a staffer.
He has been coming to the center for 32 years. There, people with developmental delays work on job and life skills to make them as independent as possible.
Greene used to earn money at the center working with plants in a nursery and folding calendars, which supplemented his Social Security checks that cover his housing, food and other necessities.
Sometimes he would take his girlfriend out for lunch.
But during the past year, his eyesight has gotten worse. Greene has retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that often leads to blindness. He can't see out of his right eye, and sight in his left eye is growing fuzzier. He uses a walker to get around.
These days he goes to the center to socialize and relax.
He's semiretired," said Nancy Collins, a coach from the center who helps him live on his own.
"I ain't semiretired," he countered, adamantly yet good-naturedly.
Collins is looking for work he can still do, she said. The horticulture business at the center closed, and Greene can no longer fold the calendars neatly.
So Greene talks to his friends about current events.
He likes to watch Animal Cops, a reality TV series showing animals as they are taken from people who treat them poorly.
"It makes me mad," he said of the abuse. "I wish they'd quit it."
He has plenty of stories, too.
He tells anyone who will listen that his uncle had a cow named Dinah.
He and a friend once saved a turtle on the side of the road.
And everyone at the center knows Greene's story about his uncle, who was in a Moose lodge and dropped his gun, which shot a hole in a commode.
This makes him laugh.
Fifty years ago, people like Greene 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.
Many aren't used to making their own choices. Staffers at the center help them live in homes and do real work.
With support, Greene chose to move out of his mother's house.
"I made my own decision," he said proudly. "I wanted to do other things."
He still visits her often and calls every day. She is 92.
While he can still see, Greene wants to go on a special holiday trip.
He has been saving about $10 a week from his disability check. He has about $100.
He wants to go to Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando. It would be his first time. And he wants to spend the night in a hotel. Another first.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.