Florida’s Community for Adults with Disabilities

By Rebecca Maglischo
Photos by ROAR Florida

Situated on 56 acres in northeastern Lakeland, FL is the home base of ROAR Florida, one of only six similar organizations in the state. This is a residential community offering low income housing and long term solutions for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. A quaint design features inviting front porches, beautiful landscaping, and gathering areas that beg residents and visitors to get comfortable and stay awhile. The clubhouse, game room, walking paths, and pool area are a bustle of activity on any given day. For the residents that enjoy the comfort of the community, this is home. For the families that love these residents, this is an answer to prayers.

Margaret Mead is quoted as saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Thirty two years ago, a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals sat in a room looking for ideas, solutions, and support. These families had young children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In the absence of the internet, families attended a group called “Parent to Parent” that met at the Child Development Center in Lakeland, FL.

Life for these parents didn’t look like what they had dreamed of, and the children they loved required skills that had to be obtained on the fly. While most of these families were just taking every day  as it came, with all that it might entail, and whatever new trick they might have to pull out of the next sleeve, something bigger was happening. The calling that would grip the hearts of these families on the sidelines of a soccer practice would require a tenacity that exceeded what any one of them would’ve believed they might possess. But the fighting spirit acquired as they wrestled for rights and services for their babies bolstered these families to leave a legacy of hope and possibility.

Margaret McNutt, one of the founding members of ROAR Florida (originally called Noah’s Ark), has trudged uphill every step of the way and remains actively involved to this day. Margaret was new to Lakeland and pregnant with her second child when her oldest son was evaluated for his delays. “You just can’t describe it,” she says. “When you get the diagnosis, you kind of already know. But that finality is like a ton of bricks. Your mind reels with everything that it might mean and all the unknowns. And the guilt… you can’t help but wonder if you are responsible.” In Florida, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities can attend school from age 3 to 22 years old. This extended service is important for the students. Schools provide socialization, activities, learning opportunities, job training, therapies, and a much needed break for parents. But time ticks on, and students age out. Margaret and the other founding members had the vision to look past the day-to-day struggles and consider the realities of life for their children as adults.

“We dared to talk about what would happen to our children as we aged and even died,” Margaret tells me. The founding members wanted their children to have a life that was exciting and with as many options for independence as possible. The team dove in wholeheartedly, visiting every type of home for individuals with disabilities in many states across the country. Blending what they had gleaned from those on-site visits, a vision began to form.

Margaret McNutt talks almost without pause for over an hour. She alternates between a solemn recognition that the challenges for her son, and for many individuals, are immense and a laissez-faire confidence that can only come from a woman that has faced tremendous adversity. I wonder how the founders had the strength to seemingly do it all. She laughs and tells me of one day she was particularly downtrodden after they had received some bad news. Jack Kosik, another founder, smiled wryly and patted her on the back, “McNutt that’s just our first ‘No!’”

The real break came for the team when First United Methodist Church offered some adjacent land and helped raise the funds to build the first home. This home and several others still stand on that land. Referred to as The Nest, these satellite sites were the launching pad for much bigger things to come.

Great ideas inspire generosity, and Lakeland was generous! In 2004, the City and State donated the 56 acres in northeast Lakeland. The first residents moved onto this property on July 4, 2016. The original development utilized 16 acres and currently houses about 125 residents. The satellite sites support an additional 21 individuals.

Passion and love were the driving forces that pushed the founding families beyond what they even thought possible. Then they gently placed their passion project into the hands of a highly skilled team that could move the project forward. Cauney Bamberg took the position of CEO in 2022.

Working with the founders, they handpicked a team whose skills could live up to the dream. Historically, the organization rode the ups and downs of philanthropic giving. Connie and her team envisioned a plan where a revenue stream would offset operational costs so that every gifted dime could go towards improving the lives of the residents.

This year, ROAR Florida is hoping to enter a public/private partnership with the City of Lakeland. Twenty acres of land would house a solar farm and a community garden expected to produce 30,000 lbs of produce per year. An additional partnership with the University of Florida College of Medicine hopes to bring interns on site to train residents with horticultural therapy. This one-of-a-kind approach would provide employment to residents who need more income, address food insecurities within the ROAR community, create a consistent stream of revenue, and set a precedent for future communities. “We want to create a place where residents can thrive!” Cauney Bamberg says with enthusiasm.

The path for trailblazers is unmarked. There is no map and no certainty, only tentative steps in the right direction. Obstacles loom large, and the effort is enormous. But once that trail is blazed, no one will ever have to do it again. The hardest work is done by the brave souls that can’t see what’s around the next corner. Instead, they must operate on the faith that what is good and right will prevail. The story of ROAR Florida is a story of trailblazers. First, parents who dared to dream of the best for their children. And now, a community that refuses to dream of anything less!

For more information call (863) 687-0804 or go to their website: www.roarflorida.org