Daniel Aboud walks down the line of boxes, stuffing a canvas bag with items ranging from a can of Coke to Mitt Romney's book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.
It is one of 14,000 goody bags that he and fellow workers at MacDonald Training Center will fill with 144,000 items for delegates, VIPs and media coming to Tampa for the Republican National Convention, Aug. 27-30.
Aboud, 29, and his fellow workers are part of a vast group of people, from caterers to bus drivers, responsible in ways large and small for making the event happen. But unlike thousands of others involved, Aboud doesn't know what the convention is and that he is a part of it. He just likes working at MacDonald Training Center.
All that Coke, he says while he stuffs a bag, "makes us thirsty."
MacDonald is a private, nonprofit organization that serves adults with disabilities, most of them developmental such as mental retardation. It has about 600 clients in its Tampa facility in the West Shore area and another one in Plant City. One of its main goals is teaching to those capable the skills to live and work in the community at varying levels of independence.
To that end, the center contracts with businesses to provide services such as packaging, shipping and light manufacturing. All contracts must offer a training opportunity. Most are on-going such as the contract with the Florida Department of Transportation to package and ship the SunPass transponder.
Assembling hospitality bags for the convention is, of course, temporary. And in some ways it is an exception in that the task is not really a training opportunity the way sewing SeaGrass Recovery sediment tubes, for example, is. But MacDonald's leaders saw it as a form of community outreach and expanding connections.
"One of our patrons brought some of the Host Committee to our art gallery for a reception," said Rita Hattab, community relations coordinator. "We took them on a tour of the facility to show them what we do and they suggested we bid on assembling the goody bags."
She couldn't say how much the center is being paid because of a confidentiality agreement but said, "Our bid came in under their budget." All the workers are paid by the hour or the piece depending on their skill level.
The RNC bags are filled quickly by the clients who return to the beginning of the line and repeat the process for about two hours before lunch break. Hattab said they don't find the work boring; instead, the repetition and ability to work with few mistakes give the clients confidence.
"They're good at what they do, and they know it," she said.
After the bags are completed, checked for accuracy by staff members and boxed, they are tagged with UPS shipping labels and sent to area hotels.
A lot of planning was needed before the assembly line stuffing began because there are three categories of bags and not all items go into all bags. Delegates get the fattest ones with 12 out of a possible 15 items. Media will have eight in their bags, including a tin of breath mints and a sun kit with sunglasses, sunscreen and handheld fan.
Unlike the delegates and VIPs, who will receive canvas totes decorated with the convention logo, the media bags are smaller and made from laminated fabric with scenes from Busch Gardens. Busch Gardens is also putting small plush giraffes in the delegate and VIP bags.
Gladys Ruttell, 55, is one of the few at MacDonald who understands that the bags are for the convention, "which," she describes as "like a senate."
She finds the toy giraffes "cute."
"But," she said, "why don't they put an elephant in there?"
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]