CLEARWATER — April Russell always admired teachers, but she said she “could never do it in a million years,” her children said.
Despite her modesty, in her 83 years Russell succeeded in teaching her family, children and hundreds of Pinellas County teachers and students to give selflessly without seeking recognition, said her daughter Karen Russell, principal of Woodlawn Elementary School in St. Petersburg.
That’s why it’s fitting that, although the mother of four died Nov. 26, the funny, sociable homemaker’s legacy of behind-the-scenes giving to schools earned her this year’s Pinellas County Superintendent’s Unsung Hero honor. Her family placed the certificate awarded by the school district last week on her grave site, the only award she ever received.
“We were a very close family, and she was just a giving woman, always putting donations in my dad’s memory,” Karen Russell said. “She was nominated before she got sick, and she was so cute and excited when she found out. The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘Does that mean I’m going to have to speak?’ When I found out she got it I screamed out loud in my office.”
It began when Karen Russell became principal of St. Petersburg’s Clearview Avenue Elementary School, a high-poverty school that closed in 2009. Russell told her mother stories of the everyday struggles her students faced. April, a frequent donor to local charities, decided she needed to find a way to help “so every penny would go directly to kids,” Russell said.
Her first project in an eight-year stream of giving was to ensure that every student got a hot meal at Clearview. At that time, students who didn’t have money for lunch and had not completed the free/reduced lunch paperwork were allowed a certain number of hot meals and then received a cold lunch.
Born into poverty in New York, April knew the humiliation the kids felt being identified as poor and thought “that was absolutely awful,” her daughter said.
April decided to pay for those students’ lunches, so no one would be singled out or embarrassed among their peers with their cold sandwiches, cheese and milk.
From there, she couldn’t be stopped.
“She started coming to me almost daily saying, ‘What else can I do?’” Russell said. “She just always wanted to help, whether it was paying for the welcome-back breakfast, buying uniforms for students that couldn’t afford them, paying for field trips or buying Christmas presents for kids so their parents could feel good about themselves and the kids could have a good childhood Christmas.”
When Russell moved to Woodlawn five years ago, she came to an F-rated school battling chronic absenteeism. Her mother bought gift cards to put in a drawing for students with the best attendance records. When parent involvement was waning during Russell’s second year at Woodlawn, her mother paid for two families of four with the most volunteer hours to take a trip to Walt Disney World and stay at a Disney resort.
She also found ways to help teachers, said reading intervention teacher Kathleen Bohrnsen, who nominated April for the award. Because her husband, former Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney James T. Russell, attended Woodlawn as a boy, April decided to pay to build a fitness room for teachers and staff at the school in his honor. When Karen Russell learned that funding for Girls on the Run, an after-school program to empower girls by training them to run a 5K, would not be available last year, her mother again stepped up by offering to pay for the entire program — about $3,000.
When April died, in lieu of flowers, the family asked for donations to Girls on the Run in her honor. With the money collected, the school will be able to sponsor the program for at least two more semesters.
“This program really is life changing, and meant the whole world to these girls and their parents,” said Bohrnsen, who is also Woodlawn’s Girls on the Run coach. “The fact that she would fund the entire program really resonated in the hearts of those 20 girls, and I think really changed them forever, and that’s just one of the many things she’s done that impact so many people.”
April Russell will be remembered for her love of bowling her kind personality, her elegance and quick wit, Woodlawn teachers said. In the time since Karen Russell has taken the helm, Woodlawn has improved from an F school to a B school. That transformation may never have been possible without her mother’s love and support, she said.