Gear Up Florida 2011: The Russell Home

This day would be much different than most others on our two-week trek. For starters, a 9:30 a.m. wake up has thus far been unheard of. Often the travel and programming demands of the day necessitate the team waking prior to the sun rising, so that we can be on the road at the first hint of daylight. Needless to say, this day off the bike was enthusiastically welcomed by all… as was the ample breakfast sponsored by Armando Calienes (father of crew member Andrew) at the Golden Corral just across the street from our hotel. I need not go into details regarding the proceedings at breakfast.. I assure you though that the team took advantage of the opportunity to sufficiently refuel their furnaces from the 445 miles traveled thus far.

The afternoon hours were spent running a host of errands… bike shop runs for extra tire tubes and mechanical fixes, FedEx drop-offs of loads of artwork purchased earlier in the week from the artists with disabilities at the MacDonald Training Center, and a team mail pick-up from the offices of GUF’s presenting sponsor (Florida Powertrain).

By far, the foremost event of the day was our friendship visit at the Russell Home for Atypical Children. For the seventh year, Ms. Janet Russell Nixon (aka: Mama Russell) has welcomed the GUF team into her home to feast with her very special family of 25 “children” with disabilities, many of whom have lived in the home since its founding sixty years ago. Any past member of a GUF team would reiterate how truly cozy and welcoming the Russell Home is to all who visit. This visit was markedly focal for me for a couple reasons. First, I got the opportunity to reconnect with an amazing little man named Michael, whom I first met three years ago as a cyclist on the 2008 GUF team. Michael, now seven years old, was born with no brain, just a portion of a brain stem, blind, and consequently non-communicative. Given a life expectancy of merely days at birth, Michael has defied all odds and continues to be the heart of Mama Russell’s home. He has grown to love music (especially jazz), stand with the assistance of others, patty cake, and smile so wide he lights up any room.

Secondly, I got an opportunity to learn that the Russells’ long-time struggle to rebuild their aging home may soon end. Plans are in motion to demolish the now 60+ year old facility (which has possessed a host of structural issues over the years) and build a new dwelling which can better accommodate the current residents as well as the countless other children with disabilities in the Orlando-area who count on the Russell Home’s open-door childcare philosophy. Mama Russell never looked as good as she did today. I know it’s because her unwavering faith that the local and national communities that have supported the Home thus far will continue to provide sufficiently. If I never understood hope before, the Russell Home confirms that hope is not a dream, but a way of making dreams become reality.

Phillip Lloyd Hamilton (Project Manager)

Theta Delta – Florida International University

Click here to view photos from Gear Up Florida 2011