How Nicole Russell’s Self-Soothing Methods Are Changing The Lives Of Foster Children Everywhere
According to The U.S. Children's Bureau Department, there are more than 430,000 foster children living in the U.S. today. With statistics this high, it's no wonder that the lack of resources has caused the conditions of many of these homes to remain poor. Children living in these conditions are faced with a number of adversities, from lack of clothing or the confusing constant change of environment; not to mention many of them must face such hardships alone. As anyone can imagine, the foster care system can be a lonely place full of children thrusted in and out of unfamiliar environments expecting them to cope accordingly, with little to no guidance on how.
Luckily, self-proclaimed youth advocate and master of self-comfort Nicole Russell is putting an end to the agony, making the foster care experience an easier one to process.
Surprisingly enough, Nicole knew little to nothing about the foster care system in her earlier years, but an unexpected addition to her family changed her life and career as she knew it. Once her mother decided to take in her younger sister, Miracle, this one experience opened her eyes to the day-to-day transitions of foster children, self-soothing methods, and ultimately changed her entire career trajectory.
"My mother and I wanted to start collecting comfort items for bedtime and donate them, and I was looking online to find an organization that we can give to, and I couldn't find one that focused solely on bedtime, so I figured out how to start my own non-profit and in 2012, I birthed Precious Dreams," Nicole expressed.
After six years of volunteering with Precious Dreams Foundation while simultaneously acting as the full-time VIP services manager of Madison Square Garden, Nicole decided to quit her job and follow her passion in helping the youth. At the Precious Dreams Foundation, the staff aims to instill self-care and self-soothing methods in efforts to provide lifelong teaching tools for the children.
"We teach them meditation, stretches for yoga, we have guest speakers that come and share their stories, we do therapeutic writing but overall just the process of learning how to self-sooth and self-comfort. If you can teach people, specifically children, ways to self-comfort that's something they can use for the rest of their lives," Nicole explained.
But Nicole's mission to help the youth own their lives and their narratives doesn't end there. In September 2018, she debuted her self-help book entitled Everything a Band-Aid Can't Fix, which went straight to #1 of Amazon new releases, in hopes to help young adults navigate through the confusing adolescent years.
We caught up with Nicole to discuss all things self-comfort, starting a non-profit, and plans for the future of the Precious Dreams Foundation, here's what she had to say.
You left a high profile position at Madison Square Garden to start a non-profit dedicated to transitioning foster children and supporting homeless youth, tell me what that experience was like for you?
I felt full of uncertainty. I was taking the biggest financial risk of my career but the decision made more sense than the math. While MSG was fun, what I was doing with Precious Dreams was fulfilling and, with every event and conversation, I started feeling closer to God. It became clear that my calling was in community service. I've never been one to see a problem and leave it for somebody else to solve. So I put all of my time and energy into helping as many children as I could and eventually the work was seen and that helped us grow.
Courtesy of Nicole Russell
"With every event and conversation, I started feeling closer to God. It became clear that my calling was in community service."
What is one thing working in the foster care system has taught you? What is one thing you were surprised to learn?
It's opened my eyes to how difficult it is to do life alone. I don't think we have enough conversations about the challenges of foster care but former foster youth are all around us and the ones who are doing well are super-beings. They deserve more credit. The ability to overcome countless forms of adversity, discover self-love, and hold tight to your dreams is incredibly impressive.
7 out of 10 girls who age out of foster care will become pregnant before the age of 21. It's hard for me to see those numbers and not support our girls. I know that many times they're looking for love in the wrong places, misguided or taken advantage of, and they deserve better. I made it my mission to teach foster and homeless youth how to self-comfort because receiving the tools at a young age makes life easier. The ability to step back and analyze how we're reacting to our pain can really save us. It saved me.
Courtesy of Nicole Russell
You consider yourself a “master of self-comfort,” how does one become a master of self-comfort in their own lives?
Fortunately and unfortunately, I was forced to see myself at a very young age. I grew up in a single-parent home with a father who suffered from depression. If there wasn't music playing in the background, then my house was usually quiet. There were no conversations about our days or sit downs for dinner. My time at home was time alone.
I remember having a full length mirror in my room and I used to stand or sit in front of it for hours. I wasn't admiring my physical features, I was trying to find myself and see inside. I didn't appreciate it then but the silence in my home inspired mindfulness and so my curiosity was centered around who I am and not what I should be doing. Silence didn't allow distractions from my automatic thoughts so growing up I had an incredible opportunity to learn about my needs, wants, and dislikes very early.
Practicing mindfulness assists with clarity of thought and decision-making. Self-comfort looks different for everyone but the first step is hearing out your needs and honoring the ones that lead to healthy outcomes. That's how I master self-comfort.
Courtesy of Nicole Russell
"Self-comfort looks different for everyone but the first step is hearing out your needs and honoring the ones that lead to healthy outcomes. That's how I master self-comfort."
What are the easiest self-soothing methods we can all practice in our everyday lives?
Breathing is the one of the easiest things we can do to relieve tension and reduce anxiety levels. Sometimes when we're stressed, overwhelmed, or simply in a hurry, we unconsciously practice shallow breathing. Becoming mindful of the breath and breathing correctly has countless health benefits and it feels great too. Whether sitting or standing, start wherever you are and take a slow inhale (allowing the abdominal to intrude) and deep exhale. Focus on the breath every day for as long as you can. This supports a healthy flow of oxygen to the brain and body.
My other piece of advice is to turn on the kettle. If I'm feeling stressed or anxious, I drink tea or warm water. Not only does it calm the mind, it also does wonders for the skin. Tea has even been linked to a lower risk of depression. Studies have shown that for every three cups of tea consumed per day, risk of depression were decreased by 37 percent. Consume liquids that are good for you and then do it in good fashion. I'm also that girl who uses mugs with motivational quotes. Find the mug that speaks to your needs, makes you laugh, or helps you stay focused on your goals, and keep it with you throughout the day.
Courtesy of Nicole Russell
What made you want to write ‘Everything a Band-Aid Can’t Fix?’
The motivation came from remembering how tough it is for teens to openly express their emotions or work through issues independently. I had a great relationship with my mother but I still didn't tell her everything. There was advice I needed as a child but was too embarrassed or afraid to ask for help. Everything a Band-Aid Can't Fix is a go-to guide and intimate conversation with myself and the reader. The book is part-interactive, so there are questions to help teens process each chapter and understand how the topics relate to their lives.
The book provides coping strategies, mental health education, and stories from people who have also faced adversity in their childhood. I wanted young adults to see that celebrities like Asap Ferg and Brandy are just like them. We all had insecurities, dealt with bullying, peer pressure, and pain. However, it's how we reacted to and treated the pain that determined our outcome.
Courtesy of Nicole Russell
Being that you previously worked in hospitality before transitioning to the non-profit industry, what advice would you have for anyone looking to make a major career change?
Make your own rules! If you have to do both careers in order to take care of your family or put food on the table then do it. If you need to sacrifice your social life to go back to school, do it! Just be intentional with your time, thoughts, and energy. If you work hard and have a plan, the transition will happen. I sacrificed a lot but I was okay with that regardless of people's opinions on what's best for me. Nobody knows where you belong, but something inside you will guide you there if you let it.
Courtesy of Nicole Russell
"Make your own rules! Nobody knows where you belong, but something inside you will guide you there if you let it."
What are your plans for the future of Precious Dreams Foundation?
Expansion and strategic partnerships. We're currently developing new chapters in Chicago and then looking to expand to San Francisco. While we're looking to grow, we also recognize that more outreach requires more funding. I took a long look at the global mattress market that's valued at 27 billion dollars and realized that I'm failing our youth if we don't tap into that space. While these companies are selling a comfortable night's sleep to those who can afford it, Precious Dreams Foundation is helping those who can't. We all agree that everyone deserves comfort but the difference is we provide our services for free to children who sleep in the most uncomfortable situations. So right now, we're focused on trying to secure corporate support. Our youth deserves the best comfort items, best services, and best programs, and I'm not going to stop until we give it to them.
To learn more about The Precious Dream Foundation, be sure to visit their website PreciousDreamsFoundation.org. To keep up with Nicole and her mission to change the lives of foster youth, follow her @NicoleRussell.
Featured image courtesy of Nicole Russell.
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Ashley McDonough is a writer and producer in New York City. When she's not busy writing or producing culturally conscious content, she is patiently waiting for Oprah and Stedman to adopt her. Keep up with her journey via social @Ashley_Milani or check out her work on www.AshleyMcDonough.org.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Exclusive: Amber Riley Talks Finding Love After Ending Her Engagement
Singer/actress Amber Riley brings the same emotional vulnerability to her art as she does her life—and we are all better for it. The former Glee star and Masked Singer winner opened up about her love life in her recent xoNecole digital cover story, revealing what it took to find the strength to end her engagement and, eventually, find love again.
Credit: Ally Green
Riley first met her ex-fiancé Desean Black, through an xoNecole #MCM post, which prompted her to slide into his DMs and make the first move. After going public as a couple and even appearing together on Netflix's Love That For Us series, Riley and Black decided to call off their engagement. Riley, for the most part, had been mum on the reason behind the split but shared exclusively with xoNecole what led to them ultimately parting ways.
"When it was good, it was good," she explains. "When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there." Riley ultimately decided that she would do what was best for her, regardless of how invested folks might have been in the relationship. "I don't owe anybody a happily ever after," she continued. "You find happiness and enjoy it and work through it."
Fast forward to the present day, Riley is in a happy and seemingly thriving relationship with her new man. Riley revealed her new relationship on Valentine's Day 2023, saying, "I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying.
This time around is different. Riley seems intentional about keeping this relationship a tad more private. She says she is not hiding her boyfriend of eight months but rather being protective of him because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
Riley also shared about her healing journey and the fight that it's been to reach this level of happiness. “I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments."
Read the rest of Amber Riley's Spring/Summer 2023 Digital Cover here.
Featured image by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images