Angels Among Us
When you visit Next Step Ministries in Woodstock, one of the friendliest clients you’ll meet is 59-year-old Joseph. His eyes light up, his smile widens, and he makes everyone feel welcome.
“He has more love than anyone you’ll ever meet,” says his niece,
Laura Repaci. Repaci and her sister, Donna Mallet, grew up next door to Joseph, and he has always been a big part of their family. When his mom passed away in 2009, the sisters became full-time caretakers for Joseph, who has Down Syndrome.
“He’s fun,” says Donna. “When we were growing up, he was more of a companion and playmate with us.“
Donna and Laura live right across from each other in Marietta, and Joseph takes turns staying with their families. The sisters say the decision to care for their uncle came very easily.
“It’s always been an extended family,” says Laura. “It’s a part of who we are as a family.“
Joseph’s big, loving family has grown even larger since he first started spending his days at Next Step Ministries about six years ago. That’s because he’s found a home away from home here. His nieces say they believe divine intervention led them to Next Step a few months after Joseph’s mom passed away.
“He’s heaven’s very special angel,” says Laura, “and it’s like Next Step is the keeper of these angels. They know exactly what to do to care for him.”
Joseph is a hard worker, and he’s held a number of jobs over the years. His last position was at a local Kroger grocery store, where for nine years he handled duties like cleaning, sweeping floors and re-stocking shelves.
“He’s always been very high functioning and he hasn’t recognized that he has a disability,” Donna says. “So he always did what everyone else did.”
Joseph’s mom, Jean, always had high expectations for her son, and emphasized his abilities rather than his disabilities. In the 1970’s, she spearheaded a group that went to the first Special Olympics in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Joseph won a bronze medal in the cross country skiing competition, but it didn’t come easy. His admiring nieces say although he fell while competing, he refused to give up, and crawled across the finish line.
“In his mom’s eyes, he was not handicapped, says Donna.”I think that’s why he grew so much.”
As Joseph grew older, so did his mother’s passion for advocating for people with disabilities. One example: she fought hard to establish the first group homes for people with special needs in Joseph’s hometown of Port Chester, New York. Laura says there are now several group homes in that community.
Although Joseph has slowed down a bit the last few years and is showing early signs of dementia, he continues to grow, learn and enjoy life.
"In here, they don't see each other as disabled. . . and all the other clients love Joseph," say his teachers, Cheryl Allison and Karen Lyner. "He's very insightful to others' emotions," adds Cheryl.
When he’s with his Next Step family, he enjoys working on art projects, dancing and listening to music, and delivering dog bones that Next Step clients create and sell to customers around the community.
When he’s with family, Joseph’s nieces say he loves going on adventures, hanging out with his great nieces and nephews, and getting into a little trouble now and then! All in all, it’s a full life for a remarkable man who has a gift for finding new friends and family wherever he goes.
“He’s so full of love,” says Donna. “We’re so blessed that he came into our lives.”