Ashley Dill Herald-Journal
Published Nov 23, 2021
Tom and Lucy Russell have created a legacy of love and giving to children diagnosed with cancer in the Carolinas.
The couple founded the Children’s Cancer Partners of the Carolinas about 20 years ago.
Earlier this month they were surprised at a reception in their honor to present The Lucy and Tom Russell Urgent Needs Fund which was kickstarted by their friends Catherine and Anthony Vitale, who presented them with a donation of $150,000 on behalf of the C.W. & Dorothy R. Love Foundation.
“I’ve been friends with Tom and Lucy for over 30 years and in that time I’ve seen how lovingly they care for others, especially children.” Catherine Vitale said. “I can’t imagine how devastating it would be to learn that my child had cancer. Just having Tom and Lucy and all those at The Children’s Cancer Partners supporting your family as you battle cancer together is priceless. I’m so pleased that The Love Foundation can help start this urgent care fund in their honor.”
According to executive director Laura Allen, this will be a permanent fund which the foundation will continue to grow by reaching out to the community through various fundraising events.
Children’s Cancer Partners focuses on treatment access which means they help with transportation, lodging, and meals while away from home. This can also include critical homecare needs, financial help, and help with final arrangements if the child ‘earns their angel wings’ as Tom says.
How it all began
Lucy and Tom have always known giving back to children and investing in their lives would play a pivotal role in their marriage and family. The two met on a blind date set up by Lucy’s college roommate at Limestone College.
“She must have been blind as a bat when she met me,” Tom joked.
The couple married Aug. 3, 1963, and have two sons Ed, 56, and Craig, 54.
Lucy earned an education degree at Limestone and her first job as a teacher was at the S.C. School for the Deaf and the Blind, where she taught for three years. She then worked as a kindergarten teacher for several area churches before becoming a librarian assistant at the Spartanburg County Public Library in the children’s department for 13 years.
Lucy’s dream was to have an in-home daycare, which she pursued after leaving the library. Tom said he thought she was doing a bit of redecorating and upgrading the kitchen in their Spartanburg home. But Lucy was actually getting their home ready to be registered as an in-home daycare, procuring all the necessary documents.
“She pulled the wool over my eyes on that one,” Tom said. “She told me on a Thursday she wanted to start a daycare in our home and the first child would be arriving Monday.”
But Tom said it was one of the best things they did as a family. Lucy’s daycare business turned into a 34-year endeavor with her “officially” retiring at the age of 80.
At that time Tom was employed with Spartan Mills, where he worked 37 years in different levels of management. He was also coaching Little League, involved in Boy Scouts of America, and even helped coach a girls’ soccer team.
“I didn’t know anything about girls or soccer,” Tom said. “But they needed a coach so we figured it out.”
Impacting children’s lives
Tom knew from a young age helping children would be an integral part of his life. His father died when he was a 1 year old, and his mother was left with raising three young boys on her own. Tom remembers his older brother, Bobby, telling him their father would want them all to dedicate their lives to children. Both of Tom’s brothers have passed away now, but both impacted children in their communities. Bobby funded an orphanage in Baltimore, and Tom’s oldest brother John built a park for children in Aiken.
And Tom’s labor of love is the Children’s Cancer Partners of the Carolinas, which actually began as the Children’s Security Blanket in 2001.
After returning from an event in Toronto, Canada for the Optimist Club in 1999, Tom began to consider what he and Lucy could do to help families with children diagnosed with cancer. Childhood cancer was the flagship program of the Optimist Club that year, and the club donated a lot of money to go toward cancer research, specifically for children.
“It was a good thing, but it was just money,” Tom said. “I like to see a kid hit a ball, see them develop, laugh, enjoy life. I’m not a standby person.”
Tom said he began to pray about what he could do.
“When we got back to Spartanburg, I went in the backyard to talk to God on my swing,” Tom said. “Sitting in that swing on Forest Avenue, I told God I need an answer. I want to work with these kids, but I didn’t know any kids with cancer. God told me to find one family and wrap that family in a blanket of love.”
Children’s Security Blanket
Tom said he didn’t know where he was going with this idea but wasn’t going to give up. He worked with members of the Optimist Club and his Sunday school class at Trinity United Methodist Church. The work paid off and they found one child.
A 16-year-old girl with Leukemia. Her family lived in Spartanburg but were traveling back and forth to Emory Hospital in Atlanta for her treatment. And all she wanted was a laptop computer. They raised the money to get her a computer. The young girl died less than three weeks later.
“Oh, that hit me hard. I wept for that child,” Tom said. “A lot of people might have given up, but I got with God. More could be done, and we found a second child to help.”
The Children’s Security Blanket held its 2nd annual golf tournament in 2003 and raised $10,000. Tom with the help of board members Pat Davis and Catherine Vitale planned the tournament which gave them their first large influx of funds to sponsor more children. Unfortunately, one of the young girls the organization was sponsoring became extremely ill the morning of the golf tournament and died that afternoon.
“I cried through 18 holes of golf,” Tom said. “I’ll never forget it as long as I live. That tournament really enabled us to take on more children and families.”
Same vision, new name
In 2017 the organization which was then a 501(c)3 nonprofit in Spartanburg County made the decision to change its name from The Children’s Security Blanket to Children’s Cancer Partners of the Carolinas. The organization has been known for giving blankets to all of the children they work with as a physical example of “wrapping around the child and family” to provide whatever services the family needs.
When Tom took on their first child in 2001 he had no idea what this organization would grow to become. It was 100% volunteer the first 10 years and now they have a staff of 11 and have served up to 2,000 in North and South Carolina.
“It’s my life, what I live for,” Tom said. “I’m almost 85, and I wake up so enthused to get here. The team that we have here and what they do each and every day for these children is just beautiful. It’s all about that child that is fighting for their life and what we can do to help the child and the family. And it impacts us too. Seeing how these children fight and their capacity to give and love even in their darkest time has reestablished my own faith.”
One child’s story that always stuck with Tom was Hope Blackwell Leslie. Hope had beaten Leukemia, but it came back when she was 12 years old. She was the Children’s Security Blanket’s third child in the program. They were holding a Christmas Party for the children and had closed down Toys R Us in Spartanburg to bring all of the children, their families, and their siblings to shop for Christmas. Each child was given a gift card with $100, and each sibling was given a $25 gift card.
“Hope was so sick. Her mother had set her in a shopping cart,” Tom said. “I noticed everything in her cart was Spiderman. She was 13, and I knew she probably didn’t want a bunch of Spiderman stuff. I asked her ‘what in the world are you doing with all this?’ With the weakest smile, she looked up at me and said she was taking it home to her little brother Bryce.”
Her 5-year-old brother, Bryce, had donated his bone marrow so Hope could live. Tom said he got another $100 gift card to give to Hope that year. Hope’s story ended happily. She’s now a first-grade teacher at Monarch Elementary School in Union. She is also a new mom to 5 month-old Faith, who also is a medical miracle.
“I always knew the importance of this organization when I was going through my cancer treatments and was so sick,” Leslie said. “But now that I am a parent and looking at it from that perspective, what Mr. Tom and his team do like providing transportation, gas vouchers, things like that. Things the families truly need but they are focusing on keeping their child alive. They wrap around the whole family so they can focus on their child.”
Ashley Dill is a native of Spartanburg and has been on staff for the Herald-Journal for 14 years. She covers community news and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @ashleydill_shj.
You can read the original article here.