To gain job skills, the people who come to MacDonald Training Center once sorted coat hangers and folded calendars and did make-work. It didn't matter how messy the end product was because the businesses that hired the center did so out of pity.
Today, those jobs are gone and the center has evolved. Trainees, people with a range of developmental delays, now learn skills in a high-tech clean room.
A sign on a window next to the door says "STOP. No food or drink. Must wash hands before entering."
Inside the clean room, trainees package gauze for postoperative care and nipples for baby bottles.
Outside, others fill orders for Amazon.com — stuffed Cookie Monsters and Shamus. They sew biodegradable tubes to hold sand and nutrients to restore sea grass. About 50,000 such tubes went from the center to the shores along New York City after Hurricane Sandy.
"We're getting known in the community as a premier packaging company," said Krista Wright, who oversees the clean room.
Daniel Aboud, who is 30 and lives in Carrollwood, described the steps he takes to do his job.
He mimed stepping on a sticky matt three times to clean his shoes, squirting sanitizer and rubbing his hands.
"Then gloves," he said, holding out his gloved hands, and "then a hairnet."
He examines a rubber nipple that can fit onto water bottles from the company Refresh-a-Baby and wipes it clean before passing it on to his team, which places it in a package to be sealed.
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After state budget cuts took $2 million from the center in recent years, president Jim Freyvogel came up with a plan for this business-to-business model. It started in 2007 when the center started packaging and shipping SunPass transponders for Florida.
"It was a game changer," said Rita Hattab, community relations coordinator for the center.
Now the center has 31 contracts with businesses.
The clean room allowed the center to add several new businesses and came by way of a donation from a local couple, Gary and Melody Johnson, who own Unipress Corp.
The couple paid to outfit the room, which is FDA compliant and has specially filtered, pressurized air to push out any exterior contaminants. The walls are painted with nontoxic food-grade paint, and the ceiling tiles are washable.
A blister packaging machine allows trainees to seal medical products and devices.
One such product is a new liquid wound care treatment developed by Kerriann Greenhalgh at the University of South Florida. After it's packaged by trainees, KeriCure Skin Protectant goes to shelves at Kroger and Publix.
Designing business plans for these clients requires tweaking and innovative thinking by the center's staff.
Some of the equipment to bring in training opportunities requires funding that the center doesn't have. For instance, a glue machine could open up other contracts, Wright said.
The ultimate goal is for the people who train at the center to go on to jobs elsewhere.
Business owners these days are seeking competitive rates for high-quality work, and some now come to the training center not knowing the workers have developmental disabilities, Wright said.
Tawanda Nance placed the bottle nipples neatly into cardboard cases near Aboud. She took a break to explain how important the work is.
"You have to be clean because germs on your hand might get to the baby and might get him sick," she said.
Nance, who is 36 or 37 — she can't remember exactly — has her mind set on her dream job. She wants to work at a motel cleaning rooms and making beds because she likes to go on vacations and stay in motels.
Nance and Aboud are part of the Advanced Job Skills Pilot Program that aims to get people working in eight months. Their pay packaging in the clean room is based on what a worker in a comparable job would make, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the cleaning room, that's $8.12 an hour, Wright said. So if the person works at 80 percent, he would make 80 percent of $8.12 an hour, Wright said.
Every six months, trainees are evaluated and their pay rate is reset.
Aboud lives with his mother and his sister and her children. He started out at the center four years ago working on life skills. Every two weeks, he takes his paycheck to the bank. He likes to spend some of it on toys for his niece and nephew. He hopes to get a job outside the center soon, and recently applied at Publix and Steak 'n Shake.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.