Training opens doors for those with developmental disabilities

Travel brings awareness of other people and lifestyles, says Jim Freyvogel, seen here visiting Dubrovnik, Croatia. As CEO of the MacDonald Training Center since 2001, Freyvogel has helped thousands of people with developmental disabilities.
Travel brings awareness of other people and lifestyles, says Jim Freyvogel, seen here visiting Dubrovnik, Croatia. As CEO of the MacDonald Training Center since 2001, Freyvogel has helped thousands of people with developmental disabilities.
Published Aug. 23, 2013


Fighting the status quo snowballed for Jim Freyvogel from an upsetting incident in high school nearly 50 years ago. He never stopped thinking about Pete, a student with developmental disabilities, getting pelted in snowball fights on the way home from school. "I had three options," Freyvogel said. He could just keep walking, join the offense or come to Pete's defense, which the popular, varsity third baseman always did. "But Pete had no options."

Since then, Freyvogel, 66, has created options for thousands of developmentally disabled individuals as president and CEO of the MacDonald Training Center, and previously during 23 years with the Florida Department of Children & Families. Under his leadership, intellectually, medically and physically challenged people have become independent, productive members of society. His role in shutting down four Florida state institutions ranks at the top of his resume.

Many more options resulted from contracting capable MacDonald Training Center clients to pack, sew and ship Sun Passes, transportation department vests and flags, and medications, among other products. They gained job skills and a paycheck; the training center earned revenue to offset funding cuts for programs at the Cypress Street headquarters and the James Ranch in Plant City.

Freyvogel, who lives in the West Tampa Historic District, keeps his passport current and a suitcase ready. His father's job in the steel industry meant moving around the Midwest until at 19, he joined the Air Force. Assigned to the U.S. Security Service, "which no longer exists," he notes, fed his wanderlust. After four years based in Okinawa, Japan, and Brindisi, Italy, he followed a girlfriend to Tampa, where he graduated from the University of South Florida in 1975.

Traveling broadens your perspective, the father of two daughters and grandfather of two boys told Times reporter Amy Scherzer, and opens the mind to a world of possibilities.

The MTC business model works on many levels, job skills and income for clients and operating revenue for programs. Ultimately, do you hope clients and the center can function independently of government funding?

The concept comes from that snowball fight nearly 50 years ago, to empower people to live the lives they choose, not what other people choose for them.

Expanding our philosophy to partner with businesses in the community generated an additional $1.2 million net. That's still short about $400,000 a year. Luckily, we anticipated government cuts, so we were able to mitigate to some degree.

People expected to do simple repetitive tasks have been successful in packaging and shipping over 5.2 million SunPasses with fewer than 400 errors in six years. About 140 trainees get paid, by piecework or an hourly rate. When they get to the point of earning minimum wage, they're out of MTC. It's time to get a job in the community. They've been segregated from society too long.

As part of your advocacy, the state shut down institutions in Orlando, Fort Myers, Tallahassee and Miami, and MTC got rid of 14 group homes. Was that a bureaucratic nightmare?

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I am proud to have played a part in the movement to deinstitutionalize over 6,000 people in Florida. Getting people out of state institutions, returning them to their communities and their families, was a new skill. To reintegrate people wasn't always easy.

MTC sold all of its licensed residential facilities 11 years ago for a new model of living where we bring services to people in their own homes. We provide residential services for 60 adults at the level of support they need. We coach how to shop and pay bills or, if needed, provide hourly or live-in companions.

Creating two fine arts studios (at MTC) resulted in explosions of creativity. Teaching paint by number, how to stay inside the lines, that's ridiculous. It's almost a metaphor. What's so important about staying inside the lines?

Traveling is so important to you, ever since your overseas military service, and you encourage everyone to spend time visiting other cultures. What places were especially eye-opening and meaningful?

I thrive on change. I love nothing more than to jump on a train or a plane and in a couple of hours, be in a place I've never been before.

I traveled extensively in the Far East during the Cultural Revolution. I was probably one of the people who brought the Hong Kong Flu back to the U.S. in 1968, before they even had a name for it. I apologize for that.

Auschwitz had a profound effect on me. You don't understand the depth of the cruelty unless you see it. And the horrendous bloodletting in Mostar, Bosnia, where 7,200 Muslim citizens were slaughtered in one day, Now the Christians and Muslims are reconciling.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris caught me by surprise. Famous people buried there, Isadora Duncan, Victor Hugo, Jim Morrison, had their names chiseled on huge monuments. Now it's in disrepair, the names washed off by acid rain. It made me realize the futility of trying to be immortal.

We only have a limited time, you should live life to the fullest.

Is there one place you can never get enough of, and where are you off to next?

Assisi, Italy, is my favorite place to relax. I went to school there for a while and I speak functional, not fluent, Italian. I really love it there.

My next trip, with my partner Lorin Campbell, will be on the Trans Siberian Railway, from Moscow to Beijing.

Sunday conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Amy Scherzer can be reached at or call (813) 226-3332.