A family affair: Faith, service, learning

May 15, 2019
Roxanne Brown Johnson and Michelle Brown-Nelson
Roxanne Brown Johnson and Michelle Brown-Nelson are proud of their book, “It Takes Money Honey,” just released in late April. Photo by Sarah Pack

Best friends. Classmates. Authors. Sisters — in more ways than one. Since childhood, Roxanne Brown Johnson and Michelle Brown-Nelson have been close. And now, they graduate together, each having earned her Doctor of Health Administration degree — with the love and support of the other.

This, however, isn’t the first degree they earned with one another at the College of Health Professions; it’s their third, having completed their Bachelors of Health Science in 2008 and Masters of Healthcare Administration in 2010. In fact, their youngest sister, Sharee Brown Waring, also got her BHS at CHP. And well before any of that, even before the two earned their licensed practical nursing degrees, Roxanne and Michelle got their certified nursing assistant certificates together.  They love to learn, they said, and the fruit of their labors bears that out.

Impeccably polished and decked out in matching Alpha Kappa Alpha-crested blazers, Michelle in salmon, Roxanne in crisp white, the ladies look like they are about to walk on stage to deliver the commencement address. That’s not surprising; both are sought after public speakers. As they talk about their latest endeavors, it’s hard to imagine how they had time to earn their doctorates. But then they explain how their parents, family and faith got them through countless sleepless nights. Surgeries. Emergencies. Life.

The sisters grew up in West Ashley — part of a tight-knit family that focuses on faith, education and a strong work ethic. They lived next door to cousins, aunts and uncles and just up the road from plenty of other relatives. In fact, their neighborhood, Trotty Woods, is named for family.

The overachievers know exactly where their drive comes from. Their dad, Elijah Brown, owned a demanding plumbing business, and their mom, Rosie, was dedicated to their learning. Both pushed the girls to their fullest potentials, and at the same time, supported them in all their efforts.

But while other kids were playing outside after school, the sisters hit the books. They laugh when they explain that during summers, their mom would load up on math and science workbooks and drill them. When the girls would peer out the window, their cousins would be running around having fun — while they studied. “During summers!” they chimed in unison, giggling as sisters do. Many nights, they said, their mom held Bible studies at the house. She would tell them they were welcome to invite their friends. “We would say, ‘Mommy! Nobody wants to come to Bible study,’” Michelle explained.

Little did they know the impact this foundation would have on their lives. Friends and professors call them superwomen.

Unfathomable schedules

While working on their doctorates, both held down full-time jobs in the health care sector. Roxanne is the minimum data set coordinator at Heartland of West Ashley Rehabilitation & Nursing Center, a 125-bed skilled nursing community. As a member of the management team, she does patient assessments and creates their care plans, while ensuring compliance with federal and state regulations.

Michelle is the executive director of Ashley River Plantation, a 123-bed assisted living community. She credits MUSC with helping her build the skills necessary to excel in a leadership position.

“Certainly, having a community of that size, with 75 to 80 staff members, the leadership skills that I learned here at MUSC have provided a solid foundation — teamwork, cultural dynamics, diversity, strategic management. They all serve to help me on a day–to–day basis to be able to lead the community of residents and my staff there.”

Oh, and add in one more job — wives/moms. In addition to excelling in their arduous masters and doctoral programs and full-time careers, they run non-stop households, managing homework and after-school activities and making sure there are nutritious hot meals and plenty of love to go around.

It takes a lot of love

Michelle, married to her husband, Theodore, for 20 years, has two busy teenage girls — 14 and 18. Last year, her youngest had spinal surgery at MUSC. She said it was a relief for her daughter to be at MUSC.

“Over the past 15 years, MUSC has given me so much. It truly is a world-renowned institution in every way. To be able to rely on everyone’s expertise and caring in this situation — it meant the world.”

Roxanne and husband, James Johnson, are parents to seven kids: three by birth, four by heart. When their next-door neighbor ended up in the hospital, they were there for him. The problem? He was raising his daughter’s four kids alone — his wife had died about 18 months prior. Roxanne and James immediately offered to watch the 2-, 4-, 8-, and 11-year-olds. But when he never made it out of the hospital, there was no one to raise his four grandkids. Roxanne and James didn’t hesitate to step in and make the brood part of their own, even when parts of the process were difficult. After 27 years of marriage, they have kids ranging from 7 to 26.

“Our lives are so filled with love and family and giving. Those principles are the cornerstones of our lives. We all pull together. We do what it takes. We stand up for what is right. That’s what we saw from our parents and from our grandparents growing up, and that is what speaks to us. We rely on family.”

“Family isn’t just important,” Roxanne said. “It’s everything.”

Last fall, Roxanne’s daughter Faith — a college freshman — suffered two strokes while away at school. Doctors assessed her, and she was quickly transported to MUSC from St Francis. It was touch and go at times, but Faith, while still recovering is improving every day. 

Roxanne Johnson and Michelle Brown-Nelson 
Roxanne Johnson and Michelle Brown-Nelson. Photo provided

Faith — in addition to being a beautiful name — is the sisters’ anchor, and it sustains them. Having children in the hospital, suffering serious conditions and undergoing major procedures, is stressful, but it’s also when you know who and what you can count on, they said.

“Our Christian principles — the foundation of our faith — gets us through. We rely on it,” Roxanne said.

“Yes. Philippians 4:13,” Michelle added, referring to the well-known Bible verse. “Remember Mommy made us memorize it when we were little? ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’” she said, reciting the Scripture powerfully. “I can remember in elementary school, taking a math test, and I had that verse written on a piece paper. I don’t think Mommy even knows about that.”

But their sister bond surpasses even DNA. Roxanne and Michelle are members of AKA, the nation’s first black sorority. Michelle is the chaplain of the Omicron Rho Omega chapter, and Roxanne serves as the chair of the Connection Committee and doorkeeper. The sisterhood is meaningful to them. All year, they are involved in fundraisers, drives and community service projects. They look forward to next year’s regional conference and the numerous logistical assignments they’ll have. “You’re going to see a lot of pink and green in Charleston,” Michelle said with a laugh. 

While their weeks are overscheduled, Sundays are reserved for church and fellowship. Michelle serves as a deaconess at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, and Roxanne has been involved in numerous ministries at Royal Missionary Baptist Church — both located in North Charleston.

Enough is not enough

In addition to school, jobs, families, sorority and church, Roxanne and Michelle manage to make time to fulfill yet another passion they share: motivational speaking and inspiring others. And while they do most things together, each sister has her own company and mission.

Michelle is the CEO of Deal Straight Leadership and Development Enterprises where she provides coaching, training and mentoring and does speaking engagements. She believes people are in real need of leadership development. She just recently conducted a leadership conference in Bethesda, Maryland, for federal employees, where she taught these principles.

“The leadership I teach to people is about being open, honest – dealing straight with people. You have to tell people the truth, whether it’s good or bad,” she said. “I love to motivate and inspire current leaders and future leaders. Leadership excellence — that’s what motivates me.”

Roxanne has applied for a 501 (c) (3) for New Horizons for Our Communities — a nonprofit she runs. She teaches adults and kids gun safety awareness around the state.

“We have such a high rate of gun violence in South Carolina, and we’re trying to reduce that through education. It’s critical that guns are locked up. Put them in a safe. If your kids are spending the night anywhere, ask the parents if they have guns in the home. If so, how do they secure them? Are they in a safe? These are your children: You need to know.”

Both women credit these types of leadership qualities to the education they received at the College of Health Professions and the faculty who equipped them, Michelle said.

“Our programs at MUSC made us think, broaden our horizons and step out of the box — critical thinking, building leadership, bringing teams together. When you think about it, we spend more hours a day working with our counterparts than our families. It’s been extremely rewarding and valuable.”

Michelle is also an adjunct professor at the College of Health Professions, teaching part time in the cardiovascular perfusion program. “I love teaching leadership, quality and information systems at the college. Health care is important, and it’s really growing. People are living longer. There are more complex medical issues. It’s exciting to teach future health care providers.”

She credits Jami DelliFraine Jones, Ph.D., chair of the Department of HealthCare Leadership and Management, for her mentorship and Naomi Sampson, assistant dean for strategic initiatives, for her support. “I thank God for their help and persistence and for guiding me.”

Roxanne’s goal is to become a professor in health care policy — seeing it in action was key. “We went to D.C. to see how policy is made,” she explained. “Congress was voting at the time to defeat Obamacare. It was also interesting to see the FDA and areas where health care policy is determined.”

Community engagement is another subject that she has already set into motion through her advocacy work.

“At MUSC, we learned community engagement, which is important. Giving back to the community as a whole, trying to help people and educate them. MUSC molded us to become leaders in this area.”

Roxanne is grateful to Annie Simpson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of HealthCare Leadership and Management, for taking an active role in her education. “She was an inspiration for me,” Roxanne said.

So how have they remained sane? “Faith and family,” Roxanne said.

“And, the three of us talk on the phone every day,” Michelle said of the sisters. They laughed and nodded.

“Seriously, though, we could not have made it without our parents,” Roxanne said. “I had three surgeries during our programs and never would have made it without family. Our mom cooks meals and makes enough for the kids. She sends meals to us. Daddy picks the kids up from school and gets them if they call during the day. Sometimes I don’t know they’re sick until after work. We can’t thank them enough.”

Still, it was the sisters whose bond got them through.

“We needed each other. We supported each other. There’s a lot of work to do,” Michelle said. “When we went through each program, we had to pull on the strength of each other. We had to rely on our faith. We encouraged each other — ‘We’ve got to get this done!’ We had to push each other. It can be very overwhelming. Full-time jobs. Full-time families. Classes. Church. Up late. Cooking supper. Doing homework. Everyone else would be going to bed, and we’d just be hitting the books.”

Maybe one day they’ll write a book. Oh, wait. They did. “It Takes Money Honey,” a collaboration with other women of faith, was just released on Amazon. The Amazon book is a 365-day devotional with proven tips for wealth creation, financial freedom and developing faith.

So what don’t they do?

Sleep.

About the Author

Mikie Hayes