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Despite cuts, adults with disabilities program will continue in Tarpon Springs

TARPON SPRINGS — When Claire Lachance learned that the adults with disabilities class her daughter has been attending for the last 12 years was canceled, she couldn't believe it.

"It was kind of a blow," she said. "This isn't really happening. They must have made a mistake."

Lachance didn't want to tell her daughter, Susan Levesque, about the news.

But thanks to funding from the city of Tarpon Springs, she won't have to. The Gro Group program is scheduled to resume after Labor Day, the only program of its kind that will start this school year despite a recent cut in state funding.

"It's a real miracle," said Paula Littlefield, who has been teaching the class for the past 24 years. "We are very, very grateful."

Gro Group was among four countywide programs for adults with disabilities that was operated by the Pinellas County School District and funded by state grant money. About 200 students attended the free classes, where they learn life and job skills, as well as gardening and arts and crafts. Besides Tarpon Springs, other classes were located in Madeira Beach and Clearwater.

But through the years, state funding dwindled, said Mark Hunt, executive director of the district's Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education. Last year, the state provided $374,337, but it costs nearly $456,000 to operate the programs. The district funded the difference.

This year, state funding was completely slashed. Letters went out to parents informing them that there would be no programs this school year. There are other adults with disabilities programs in Pinellas, but many have waiting lists or require tuition.

"When we first got the word, we reached out to other organizations to find out if there were any funding sources available," Hunt said. "To this point, no one has been successful. … It's one of those things that we just aren't able to find any money at this point."

The news arrived in Tarpon Springs, where City Manager Mark LeCouris said he resolved to keep Gro Group going. Last week, city commissioners unanimously approved his plan to incorporate the program into the recreation division, with budget costs totaling about $20,000.

"At least we're able to take care of the people who have been in school here," LeCouris said. "We hope some other places step up."

About 20 students participate in Gro Group, said Littlefield, the program teacher. During the week, students spend time gardening, doing arts and crafts, and visiting the city's library. Most of them live in Tarpon Springs. The classes are scheduled Monday through Friday, and students will meet for at least three hours a day.

"They're being embraced and enriched in a way that's a little bit different from the usual kinds of things that they are exposed to," Littlefield said. "They have a real sense of belonging."

Lachance, whose 40-year-old daughter attends the program, is Littlefield's teacher's assistant. She has watched firsthand how her daughter, who has cerebral palsy and uses crutches, has benefited from the classes.

"She's a lot more social, and she's happy," Lachance said. "She's anxious to go back. She's anxious to see all her friends."

Littlefield said they've begun contacting parents to let them know Gro Group will continue.

"We're over the moon," she said.

Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.