BRANDON — From the facade, the house resembles every other home on the block. Closely cropped grass, modest decorations on the front lawn and a couple of cars in the driveway.
Sometimes young adults walk outside with big smiles on their faces as they greet a small-framed woman.
To the casual observer, the people may look like a mother and her children. But appearances can be deceiving at this Brandon home. This is not just any house. It's the Ridgeland Group Home, a safe haven for kids and adults who have physical and mental disabilities.
Carol Joseph runs the home and four others like it in Brandon and Valrico. The homes currently serve 28 clients ranging from ages 13 to 37. In addition to servicing the disabled, Joseph said her clients include children and young adults who are wards of the state. Her goal, she says, is to make every client feel at home through personal care and love from the staff.
"I'm like a mother to all of them, I care for them, take them to doctors appointments, school and I'm there to listen to their thoughts and feelings," said Joseph, 61, a registered nurse.
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Raised by her grandmother in Jamaica, Joseph always dreamed of helping others and making a difference. She thought about becoming a doctor but ultimately chose nursing, a profession she felt would allow her to be a caregiver. It was a passion stoked by watching her grandmother care for people in her neighborhood, providing meals to the hungry and warmth and encouragement to the lonely.
Joseph immigrated to the United States in 1976 and began pursuing her nursing career at Bronx Community College. She would eventually marry, have children and years later leave New York for West Palm Beach, where warm weather beckoned and reminded her of home.
When her husband got a job in Tampa in 1992, the family moved to the west coast of Florida. She worked at a correctional facility in Zephyrhills. During her free time, she worked as a home health nurse and often brought her children with her to patients' homes. She wanted to teach them the importance of giving back and following the right path.
In 2006, after extensive research and gaining some experience in the home health care business, Joseph opened her first group home.
"I already knew what to expect," she said. "It's a 24-hour job."
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Inside one of the Ridgeland homes, pictures and paintings cover the walls. Comfortable couches and chairs decorate the living room and dining room. A spacious back yard invites clients to amble about. Every day, the staff prepares home-cooked meals. Joseph encourages her clients to come up with activities, go to school and live a normal life.
Ellen Roth, a consultant for the Ridgeland Group Home, said she has been working for Joseph since she opened her first home. Roth praises Joseph's work ethic and said she teaches her staff to care as much about their jobs as she does.
"She goes above and beyond what are the minimum requirements by state and licensing; she's a step above everyone else I've met," Roth said. "I've never seen Carol turn down a challenge. She is a pleasure to work with and is always willing to give advice to other home groups."
The business is a family enterprise.
Joseph's son, Deryck Joseph, 29, works at Ridgeland because he feels it's his duty to carry on his mothers' legacy. He feels it's important to help people who do not have anybody and that the true meaning of life is to be noble by giving a helping hand.
"At 13, I got to watch my mom at work doing home visits," said Deryck, who has degrees in pharmacy and biochemical engineering. "Everything started making sense."
He said he wants to continue his mother's business because she worked so hard to open the home group.
For the Josephs, working at Ridgeland is more than having a job and a business, it's giving part of their life to care for people who need help. It is Joseph's grandmother's legacy come full circle.
Krystel Knowles can be reached at email@example.com.