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How Nicole Russell’s Self-Soothing Methods Are Changing The Lives Of Foster Children Everywhere

Workin' Girl

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.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

This article is in partnership with Staples.

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