Linebacker Gives Back...Line By Line:
"The Twan Russell Life Skills and Reading Foundation"
Written By Patrick DeCarlo
Dividing his time between play books and books for playtime, Twan Russell, Founder of The Russell Life Skills and Reading Foundation, found a new team to dedicate his passion and dedication to…kids. What could possibly inspire this former Miami Dolphins linebacker to enjoy the squeals of the children in the classroom as much, if not more, than he adored the cheers of his fans from the stands?
“People too often place a Band-Aid on our youths’ knees instead of going in with sutures and sewing up their problems by teaching them how to provide for themselves. That’s why we started,” Twan says.
Twan Russell, former Miami Dolphins linebacker and founder of the Russell Life Skills and Reading Foundation, Inc., locks his large hands together when he diagnoses the troubles of America’s youth. “Many times kids just aren’t reading,” he says. “Without reading, children lose the ability and confidence to make their own choices, whether it is to go to trade school, to college, to become successful and productive citizens.”
Success and productivity have come in twos for Russell. A former professional athlete, Russell attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School where he played football and ran track and field, eventually winning the State Championship in the 300-meter hurdle. While attending the University of Miami on a football scholarship, Russell managed to graduate with degrees in criminology and communications as well as lead the Miami Hurricanes in tackles. This led to a professional football career where Russell enjoyed playing for the Washington Redskins, the Miami Dolphins, and the Atlanta Falcons. It also gave Russell agency to focus on a problem dire to his heart: to doctor the staggering illiteracy rates of the inner city and low-income areas in South Florida.
“It’s not that the books aren’t accessible,” Russell says. “It’s that kids are frustrated with reading because they’ve stumbled so many times and no one has been there to help pick them up.”
Russell’s foundation has offered that pick-me-up free of charge since 1999, growing to serve nearly 700 at-risk youth a year in six after-school centers throughout South Florida. “A typical day begins with about fifty kids [in a center],” Russell says. “They get there around 3:00 o’clock.For the first hour, they blow off steam by playing sports, doing arts and crafts. At 4:00 o’clock, our teachers arrive and the children get settled in with spelling, language arts, reading aloud. And the last hour is a synthesis of what they learned—writing a poem or play to be acted out about the story, really interacting with the material.”
Humbler beginnings saw the first center’s opening in an Oswald Park church. Alongside his mother, Mrs. Corliss Russell, a former educator herself, Twan canvassed the community with flyers announcing a new after-school homework program, nowhere near as vast and encompassing as the program currently is today. But the classes filled up immediately, Russell recalls. “Parents want to give their children help, but it’s expensive. Going to [for-profit tutoring schools] three times a week is sometimes how much people pay for a mortgage or a car payment.”
By offering tutoring and mentoring programs free of charge, Russell believes he is building bridges and sharing responsibility in education between public schools, working parents, and local community groups. “Our kids come with a backpack of problems,” Russell says. “We have to peel back the layers. Did they have breakfast this morning? Are their parents breaking up? Did they have to run from kids who meant them harm to get here?”
Having enough time to get to the root of a child’s difficulty with learning, Russell says, is the biggest obstacle for schools and working parents. “The problems of the American Dream–many people see success as wealth,” Russell says. “People are forced to go into survival mode to provide for their families. Even my wife has to check me from time to time and keep me from working so hard because I have not taken the time to help kids out with their homework. A single-mother doesn’t have that check and balance; all she can see is a bill that has to be paid and the education portion of raising a child, not intentionally, falls to the wayside.”
Russell’s foundation recognizes a changing world characterized by an absence of interconnected community institutions and aims to subvert that by sharing the stresses of providing for children. “We look at how the schools are doing,” Russell says. “The incomes of homes; what types of kids are there—kids who don’t’ read well; who have behavioral problems; kids undergoing abuse; living in single-parent homes. You name it. And if we haven’t seen it, we’re probably going to get it. We’re a microcosm of society and we follow the need.”
Many South Florida schools desperately do need help. With budgetary concerns, burgeoning class sizes, and time constraints in the average school day, municipalities in Deerfield, Hollywood, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale cannot always offer struggling students the curriculum, structure, and extra attention needed to gauge and overcome their shortcomings with learning. By collaborating with municipalities and community leaders, Russell’s foundation receives the students and the spaces needed to get to work. The Russell Life Skills and Reading Foundation, Inc. then give back by offering students their number one asset: teachers. “Our teachers create individual lesson plans for our children to zero in on what struggles the kids are going through,” Russell says.
This strategy hearkens back to Russell’s time as a child. “I had some challenges growing up,” Russell says. “We struggled to put food on the table; my parents had five kids. But I had a football coach and a teacher who took it upon themselves to challenge me and not except mediocrity.” People took extra time, Russell says, to create the success he has become. Russell realizes few can be lucky enough to attain that success; the real goal of the foundation is to provide students with pragmatic role models. “I’m a strong believer in the Average Joe,” Russell says. “We bring in the accountant, the police officer, the teacher. People we bring in are the people who did things right and became successful.”
The Russell Life Skills and Reading Foundation, Inc. operate with a budget of about $600,000 a year and such costs are difficult to maintain. Nevertheless, Russell says the struggle is worth it. “If we have one child failing, we’re all at fault. Our problems would be finished if we all collectively taught our youth how to provide for themselves in their future. Education and reading will always be the way to get back up and stay involved after failures in life.”- DUO