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Local 23-year old volunteer undeterred by cerebral palsy; finds creatives ways to support community

April 17, 2020

Children’s Home Society volunteer James Russell doesn’t cerebral palsy stop him from making a difference.

In honor of National Volunteer Week, April 19-25, United Way of Northeast Florida is highlighting outstanding community volunteers dedicated to making a difference all year long. 

“Together we can make a difference.” That’s James Russell’s favorite quote. Despite the challenges he faces living with cerebral palsy, the 23-year old Children’s Home Society volunteer doesn’t let anything stop him from giving back and making a difference in his community. From toy drives to fundraisers, Children’s Home Society has benefited from his forward thinking and generosity since 2017.

Here’s what James had to say about his philanthropic journey as a Northeast Florida changemaker:

Describe the person or event that inspired you to give back to the community. 

My reason for opening The James Russell Fund is I want to give back to the community as they once gave back to me. My fund is a non-profit organization that partners with charitable organizations to support and assist those who need our help throughout the Florida.

In 1997, I was born with cerebral palsy because of complications at birth. My parents were told I might not survive, and that if I did, I would not be able to walk, talk or be able to perform every day activities. 

Shortly thereafter, my mother learned of a new physical therapy treatment in Poland which had not yet been introduced in the United States. It was a strenuous exercise program in an Adeli suit which is a modification of a space suit used by Russian cosmonauts to counter the effects of long-term weightlessness on the body while in space. The inner workings of the suit had elastic bands and pulleys that created artificial force against which the body could work to help prevent muscle atrophy. 

This treatment in Poland was very expensive and not covered by insurance. The community came together and supported me to fund the trip to Poland not once, but twice. They held charity dinners, garage sales, and a bike poker run to raise the monies needed for me to receive this intensive therapy and because of their generosity, my mom and I were able to travel to Poland. The therapy was later introduced in the United States, but still not covered under insurance and the community once again came together to help support me. This time my therapy was in California. 

I cannot thank the community enough for their support because without them, I would not be where I am today. 

My logo for The James Russell Fund represents a circle of helping hands as the hands of my community did for me. 

What would you say is the most rewarding aspect about volunteering? 

The most rewarding aspect about volunteering are: the smiles I receive when I am able to give a special toy during the holidays when one may not have been received at all; delivering school supplies to teachers and families who could not afford to buy them; and to see a person be able to enter and exit their home because of building an accessible ramp. It warms my heart and I am the one who is rewarded. 

Describe the moment you realized your volunteer efforts were making a real difference. 

The moment I realized my volunteer efforts were making a difference is when I heard the statements children made about a toy they received or had the proper school supplies. Another moment is when I saw a mother stand on the newly built accessible ramp with tears in her eyes, knowing her daughter could now go in out of her home with ease. I know how important this is because I am in a wheelchair as well. I know how beneficial a ramp is and understand the need to easily access a home. 

If you could inspire people to do one thing to make Northeast Florida a better community, what would that be and why? 

I would try to inspire people to do what they can by having us all come together as one to support and help anyone who is in need. This will demonstrate how we can make a positive impact in our community when we all work together. 

What advice would you give someone on the fence about whether or not they should volunteer in their community. 

My advice to anyone who is thinking about volunteering is to go give it a try and you will soon realize that giving back is more rewarding than receiving. It will give you a sense of accomplishment and pride. You do not have to be rich to volunteer. You can donate your time, which is just as important, if not more important than money. Also, if you are feeling down on your luck and have nowhere else to turn, you will feel better about yourself by keeping busy and knowing you are helping others in need. 

How you can help

Because of the global pandemic, people like you are needed now more than ever to uplift the most vulnerable in our community. Nonprofits are experiencing a critical shortage of volunteers due to social distancing. And we must also be equipped with the resources to support thousands of people suffering from the economic damage caused by COVID-19, many who were struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic. Together, we can help those in need overcome the crisis we’re experiencing today — and the ones they experience every day. Because change doesn’t happen alone.

You can join hand raisers like James in the #United4Jax movement by supporting local nonprofits through a variety of volunteer efforts or make a gift today to support the year-around efforts to help families and individuals in crisis.