Evening is falling on West Course Drive as six people shuffle home from work, laughing and joking in the humid air.
Once inside their tidy, ranch house, they change clothes, then settle on couches to watch In the Heat of the Night. During commercials, some set the table and others prepare a dinner of Cornish hens, wild rice with mushrooms and a bean casserole.
It could be a scene from thousands of homes across the country. But this family consists of six developmentally disabled people, striving to live as normal a life as possible.
That they are doing so in Northdale, a community where average home values exceed $100,000 and Mercedeses and Jeep Cherokees fill many driveways, is more than a little unusual. Group homes generally are in less affluent areas, often sparking objections from residents who complain their neighborhoods are being used as dumping grounds.
But not here. This home _ operated by the Tampa-based MacDonald Training Center _ has been embraced by the community. Residents take them to church functions and give them rides to the bus stop. They bring them cookies and invite them to their homes for cookouts.
"Initially, when you start a group home like that, people hit the panic button," said Bob Barrett, who takes two group members to church each week along with his own Northdale family. "But that never happened here. You never heard anything bad about them. They kind of fit in with the rest of the neighborhood."
Until the 1970s, MacDonald clients lived in dormitories at the training center at 4304 Boy Scout Blvd. and worked either in the community or at the center, which receives state and federal money.
"All of us reach a point in our lives where we move on and take care of ourselves," said Phylis Rothberg, director of residential services. "These people deserve that same chance. The most important thing is for them to live their lives as normal as possible."
With 12 other houses in Hillsborough County, the center in 1990 bought the three-bedroom home in Northdale. Here, the six residents catch the bus to work each morning, cook and clean when they get home and relax in the comfortable "hangout room" each night.
Paul Beaupre was 26 when his parents decided to take him to the MacDonald Training Center. Now 36, Beaupre lives a fairly autonomous life at the Northdale home. He said he likes spending his weekends going to the theater and riding the bus to local flea markets.
"The philosophy used to be, "I'm going to keep my child at home and take care of them,' " Rothberg said. "Now people realize group homes offer a peer group for them to progress. Here they have people who care about them and will notice if they don't come home. Just like any family."
While working Monday through Friday, residents perform various tasks, including putting thousands of calendar pages in order, labeling coat hangers and sewing. These usually are jobs contracted out by local companies.
Dale McKenzie, 35, puts the calendars together. He and Sharon Johnson, 41, like to relax on weekends with lunch at a McDonald's restaurant. Then they might go to the movies or home to watch dozens of videos stacked neatly on McKenzie's bureau. Both say they like the freedom they have at the home.
"I can get around just about anywhere there's a sidewalk, and there's a lot of them around here," he said. "I also like keeping this place clean and working in the yard."
Five of the Northdale residents work at the training center. Marisa Odell, 36, rides her bicycle to her job as a bagger at the Kash n' Karry in the Northdale Court shopping center.
"I've got regular customers who are friendly and I like helping them carry out their bags," she said. "I always make sure I put bread on top in the same bag with the eggs."
Ollie Anderson has worked at the home as a group home manager since it opened. Though she is there to guide the residents, the group doesn't have to be told when to go to bed or when to get up. They know they are responsible for saving the money they earn and cleaning their house.
"They're just as good as I am at the cooking and cleaning," she said. "I let them go as far as they can, and when they get stuck, I'm there to help them."
Family photographs hang on the walls of their stylishly-decorated bedrooms. Televisions and VCRs sit in each room, purchased with monthly allowances. Silk flower arrangements adorn the formal living room, while comfortable couches fill the living room. The group is hoping for a screened-in porch.
Aside from perfecting day-to-day tasks, the group has learned about money _ especially how to save it for vacations to the Bahamas, Disney World and other places.
While a group home may seem out of place in upscale Northdale, neighbors say it adds diversity.
Beatrice Astwood, a manager with ABD Wide World Travel, lives in Northdale and often visits the group. She has accompanied them on cruises, trips to St. Augustine and shopping trips to Georgia.
"If you didn't know they were MacDonald kids, you would think they were just regular people," Astwood said. "They are like family members. It's great getting them out to mingle with the public and see what everybody else sees."
Barrett agrees. He suffered a brain injury 21 years ago and remembers the way society "kind of shied away from me."
His family befriended the group four years ago and now take Beaupre and Grace Evans, 53, to St. Timothy Catholic Church in Northdale every Sunday for 5 p.m. Mass.
"I'm one of the gang now," he said. "I have a special closeness to them. I can remember back to the challenges I had. When you get past all that you want to help other people."
Barrett, 52, said he tries to get Beaupre involved with St. Timothy's men's club and other church organizations, but understands when he shies away from those challenges. He said his reward comes in watching Beaupre and Evans' expressions as they are greeted by friends in the congregation.
"I was just so glad to get started with them and introduce them to our neighborhood," he said.
Rothberg said this kind of support system is very important to the group.
"This community in particular has great natural supports," she said. "We strive for friends and neighbors to take over. It's so much nicer when they have people who are not paid to be nice to them that come over and be their friends."
Mary Quigley, a teacher at West Tampa Elementary School, lives two doors from the home. She often carries homemade cookies to the group and gives them rides to places in Northdale.
"I can't think of anybody who opposed the group coming to the neighborhood," Quigley said. "They come over just to see what my family is up to, and I've gotten to know most of them pretty well. I've heard of people opposing group homes in other areas, but I can't see how anybody would oppose this group. They're great neighbors. They make people stop and think how lucky they are."
_ If you have a story about Northdale, call Kari K. Ridge at 833-7384.