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.

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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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