Purpose is often found where one’s passion, natural talent and the ways in which they can be helpful to others intersect. Nicole Russell’s love for working with kids, as well as her propensity to care and think beyond her own needs, have led to her current coordinates—leading a multi-chapter non-profit organization, CEO of her own consulting agency and the author/creator of three self help books for children and teens.
Russell’s work as a youth advocate began at home. She witnessed the nighttime-related trauma that can surface for unhoused youth when her family began caring for a four year-old girl in 2009. As Russell and her mother sought remedies in teddy bears and story time, her new sister’s bedtime steadily transformed. Recognizing a greater need, they searched for organizations that focused on improving unhoused children’s nightfall experiences. In 2012 after discovering a large demand and very little supply, Russell and her mom became co-founders of Precious Dreams Foundation (PDF). In its first five years of operation the organization was run solely by volunteers. As the workload increased, Nicole made the decision to resign from her full-time job. She knew she had found her calling.
Approaching a decade since its inception, PDF is consistently cultivating overall wellness for children in foster care and homeless shelters in eight cities across the United States. Their signature Comfort Drop program offers tangible solutions to a more peaceful rest; delivering items like pajamas, blankets and stuffed animals directly to children living in shelters. Other offerings like journaling workshops, yoga and meditation, and guest speakers sharing similar experiences help guide youth toward inner healing.
Nicole is no stranger to this inner work. Her first two books, Everything A Band-Aid Can’t Fix and the Write Here & Tear journal were instrumental in her own healing and comfort. Her most recent offering My Busy, Busy Brain became available for purchase on April 13th. The illustrated children’s book is in many ways autobiographical, and serves as a resource not only for young girls navigating ADHD but for the villages that raise them.
HANNAH checked in with Nicole on the cathartic nature of her creative work, PDF’s expansion, and her advocate wish list.
What were some challenges you had pivoting your annual fundraising event to a digital space during Covid-19?
Nicole: Surprisingly, 2020 was our most successful year of fundraising. We hired a great production team to manage the virtual experience and created a fundraising committee to help organize and promote everything else. We received an overwhelming amount of support from people in the entertainment business who were willing to lend five minutes of their time to record videos and submit them for the program. In the past, we relied heavily on securing honorees and speakers that could be physically present. There were always more no’s than yes’s. Today, people can support you from wherever they are and that opens more doors for the organization.
Were there any adjustments that worked so well you may consider incorporating them even when it is safe to gather again?
Nicole: This year we’re going to live stream the in-person event. It’s our 10th year anniversary for the gala. We’re hoping to host a safe and socially distanced event in NYC, but also make it accessible to our friends and donors across the country. We no longer have to cater to one city. We can celebrate with all of our national chapters, their volunteers, and partners.
In recent years homelessness in NYC has reached record numbers. Have you seen a correlation in that spike with the number of children you reach in New York?
Nicole: A lot of the numbers have actually gone down in NYC due to Covid-19, but they aren’t accurate. Out of desperation and fear, many families checked out of shelters and moved in with family or friends to avoid quarantining in an at-risk setting. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t homeless. When the numbers spike again we will certainly see more children entering shelters. The demand for our services at Precious Dreams Foundation will certainly grow over the next few years, although I’m hoping that’s not the case.
You have the goal for PDF to reach all of the almost half a million children in transition in the United States. How many have you reached so far?
Nicole: We’re currently serving over 8,500 youth in both shelters and foster care. It’s been impactful for the small number of youth that pass through our programs but it’s far from our goal. There are currently over 400,000 youth looking for security, comfort and opportunity. I hope this year we continue to expand and get closer to providing them with the service they deserve. We recently opened an Oakland chapter and we have plans to open chapters in ATL, Houston and Salt Lake City before the end of the year.
Some of the experiences you create for the children you work with include yoga and meditation. As a dancer, do you feel therapeutic movement would be a good addition to these offerings?
Nicole: Yes, we choose to focus on options that youth can use to self-comfort at bedtime. It’s the hardest time of the day for many of our youth and we want to empower them to stretch out the stress and focus on their dreams. We incorporate zen yoga to help calm the body and encourage youth to practice right at their bedside. However, dancing is definitely therapeutic, as well. I haven’t danced professionally in over 10 years, but I do miss it. It’s certainly something we’d consider.
You seem to have done a lot of work healing and protecting your mental health, and in your book Everything A Band-Aid Can’t Fix you’re able to guide teenagers through coping with their feelings and experiences. Did you learn anything new about yourself through creating that blueprint for them?
Nicole: I was healing throughout the entire writing process. Many people don’t realize that some of the greatest artists and creators, create first for themselves. In many ways, the book was the self-help guide I needed as a child and it inspired me to have some very difficult conversations with my family. I learned that I was willing to put healing before everyone and everything in my life. I can’t serve unless I’m well.
Can you talk about how your Write Here & Tear journal calls attention to the psychological element of privacy, and its importance to a person’s general wellbeing—especially when that private space can not be physical?
Nicole: Write Here & Tear is a perforated journal that gives the writer the power to write their feelings and rip their words. The magic of the book is that it brings comfort but was created to disappear. Writers gain total privacy but can also use it as a positive emotional outlet to express every and anything. I created this journal because many of the teens we work with at the foundation don’t have private space and certainly didn’t have it when sheltering in place. Tearing is the one thing I could offer them that would provide their words a safe space. It also just feels and sounds amazing to do it. I rip often for comfort.
You’ve just written your first children’s book, My Busy, Busy Brain. How was this process different from writing your first book?
Nicole: Everything A Band-Aid Can’t Fix called for a completely different writing style and took me five years to complete. I was writing during one of the busiest times in my life and quit on the book more times than I should’ve. That wasn’t the case with the new book. I actually wrote this during the pandemic. My Busy, Busy Brain felt like a year-long therapy session for my younger self. I was writing about a neurological disorder that I personally experience, and I was able to use fun language and highlight its benefits. During this process I also collaborated a bit more, bringing on teachers and counselors to confirm that I was hitting every mark. I had to make sure the book made sense to children and was acceptable for parents, as well.
Diagnosis can be a big challenge with ADHD, especially when it comes to girls and even more so Black girls. When were you first diagnosed, and does My Busy, Busy Brain touch on the space between noticing symptoms and actual diagnosis?
Nicole: I didn’t go for an official evaluation until May 2020 but oddly enough, I started writing the book before. I recognized the symptoms in 2nd grade, but didn’t know how to explain them or advocate for myself. Growing up, my parents felt you either get good or bad grades, and there’s no explanation for the results other than hard work. There was no consideration for disability or excuses. Without understanding why I was struggling to pay attention, I practiced trying to pretend I was focused even when I wasn’t. My Busy, Busy Brain is based on my life with a very different outcome. It’s the story I wish I could call non-fiction.
Do you plan on writing more children’s books, and if so, what other topics would you touch on?
Nicole: I do. Beverly Cleary once said, “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelves, write it yourself,” and so I’ve been writing non-stop. The next book will most likely be another one for teens on the topic of communication.
What are you most proud of through your work as CEO of Pitch House Productions?
Nicole: I’m most proud to be trusted to help other individuals and corporations develop strategies to start their own foundations and community initiatives.
Nicole’s Advocate Wish List
A dream partnership, and why: I would love to work closer with some of our elected officials to ensure youth transitioning out of foster care receive long-term benefits and a fair chance at educational and work opportunities. We recently launched a pilot program, The Humble Dreams Initiative and we’re working with a small group of young adults to help them reduce or remove their educational barriers while experiencing homelessness.
An item you’d love to add to comfort drops: Therapy dough. I personally use it and as an adult with ADHD I find it helps me concentrate.
A place you’d like to open a new branch of PDF: Besides our upcoming launches in ATL, Houston and Salt Lake City, I would love to relaunch our Baltimore chapter. The Chapter lead stepped down a few years ago and we’ve yet to find a replacement. Baltimore is a city that needs a lot of love. I’m hoping we can put together an experienced team of professionals that properly serve and offer comfort all across the city.
One thing you wish everyone knew about mental health and the foster care system: One time I heard someone say that it “feels good to talk to someone who isn’t getting paid to be there.” Many youth refuse to open up to their social workers or therapist out of fear or because of a lack of trust. Youth in foster care are praying for genuine connections and those are often the relationships that create safe space for them to be vulnerable.
To support Precious Dreams Foundation: Donate, volunteer, advocate or share. www.preciousdreamsfoundation.org | @preciousdreamsfoundation