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08/10/2022 08:30 AM

Kristen Russo: DIY Good Works

After taking an academic year off from teaching to be with family (including her son Griffin, 3, and daughter Ellie, 1, shown here) Kristen Russo employed a combination of inspiration, motivation, social media and little elbow grease to do good works benefiting others. For efforts ranging from helping her Branford neighbors to children impacted by the war in Ukraine, she has been named a Shore Publishing 2022 Beacon Award winner. Photo courtesy Kristen Russo

“You can start with small idea and watch it grow. It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment or a part of another group. You can do your own good work.”

That’s Kristen Russo’s DIY (Do It Yourself) good works concept and something she’s lived and learned in the past year she took off from work to be home with her new baby and young son. Using a combination of inspiration, motivation, some social media outreach and little elbow grease, Kristen’s good works have benefited others ranging from her Branford neighbors to children impacted by the war in Ukraine.

For her extraordinary efforts, Kristen will be recognized in September with a Shore Publishing 2022 Beacon Award. Now in its 10th year, the Beacon Awards annual gala celebrates the shoreline’s outstanding individuals who give service to others, thereby enriching our communities.

Living and Learning

Kristen grew up in Branford. She and her husband, Paul Battles, also a Branford native, are raising their family in Short Beach. Paul is a music therapist; Kristen’s a teacher. The couple has two children, Griffin, 3, and Ellie, who turned 1 in May. When Ellie was born, Kristen paused her teaching career for an academic year to be at home with her family.

“They are part of the journey,” says Kristen.

With the start of the 2022-23 academic year, Kristen will return to teaching English to sixth-graders at Clinton’s Jared Eliot Middle School. It will be her 19th year as a teacher. Kristen feels her love of teaching is part of the reason she loves helping others.

“I think all teachers are just natural givers,” she says. “And when I decided to stay at home with my daughter, I really adored it; but without that day-to-day giving of teaching middle school students, you feel something missing. When you're a teacher, you get that fulfillment every day. When that goes away, it’s kind of weird — because not only do you have the time, but then you also have that void.”

With baby Ellie in tow, Kristen started delivering meals to homebound residents last fall as a volunteer with Community Dining Room (CDR). Located in Branford, non-profit CDR is based in the Patricia C. Andriole Volunteer Center at 30 Harrison Ave. With its motto “More than just a meal,” CDR’s many programs support food-insecure residents in shoreline towns from East Haven to Old Saybrook.

About the same time Kristen began volunteering with CDR, she began building up a parent group on Facebook for Short Beach/Granite Bay area neighbors by organizing events.

“We were still pretty strictly following COVID protocols at that point, but we did a couple of events, and I think it was just wonderful for people to be able to get outside. We had a great pumpkin-painting party in the fall which was awesome.”

As Ellie got a bit older, Kristen’s volunteer role with CDR switched from delivering meals to volunteering in the CDR kitchen, which she loves. The teacher in Kristen also rose to the occasion. She began volunteering to lead craft activities during CDR’s weekly family dinner program.

Looking to do even more in her community, Kristen delved deeper into her social media connections, especially as a member of Unofficial Buy Nothing Branford. The Facebook group allows local members to post requests for needed items and share items they want to give away or loan out. Everything is provided at no cost. Kristen credits the page’s moderator, Laura Gunneson, for providing her with such a fantastic opportunity to help others.

“Laura is fabulous administrator for that group,” Kristen says. “People are so kind and so willing to go out of their way to help. It just connected me to an array of people and an array of needs in our area. I tried to jump on as many of those as I could. I was home, I wasn’t working, and I felt like I needed a purpose.”

Kristen started picking things up, cleaning things up, repurposing them and giving them back out to people who needed them. She also began shuttling items for group members without transportation.

“I would be picking up things from one person to give to another person, and I really loved the connections that I made while I was doing that,” says Kristen. “I love to chat with people. You hear their stories, and you hear their needs and their interests.”

Last December, Kristen reached out to members of Unofficial Buy Nothing Branford for help with a charitable project and was overwhelmed by the response. Kristen had put out a request for donations of personal care items to give to community members in need.

“People were dropping stuff off at my house in droves!” she says. “Soap and shampoos and lotions... and then I put it on other [community] social media sites. It was crazy — people were just dropping off items. I think we collected 300 toothbrushes!”

The drive filled 100 personal care bags, which were donated for distribution through BHCare Clothing Bank (located in the volunteer services center with CDR) and Zion Episcopal Church in North Branford.

The response to her social media call for assistance was an eye opener, Kristen adds.

“I was like, wow, if I could coordinate all these efforts...what else can we do?”

Thinking of two successful fundraising tag sales her family had held at their home, which, in combination, raised nearly $3,000 for Branford-North Branford Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter, Kristen reached out to her Short Beach community. Working in conjunction with her neighbor, Linda Newman, the remarkable result was The Short Beach Stroll/Ukrainian Fundraiser. The community-wide tag sale was held this spring to benefit children of embattled Ukraine.

“Basically, people just had tag sales at their homes and agreed to donate a certain portion. We donated almost $5,000 to UNICEF earmarked for relief for Ukrainian children,” says Kristen.

Just Ask

One final lesson Kristen learned in her year-long journey to assist others is that often, you only need to ask. As a member of CDR’s fundraising committee, she recently canvassed numerous Guilford businesses to assist CDR Fundraising Coordinator Courteny Rosenberg in generating gift certificates and donations for CDR’s second annual The Shoreline Experience raffle (see “Bigger and Better than Ever”).

“It’s a difficult time for many of them right now. I was nervous going into businesses that had not previously donated,” Kristen says. “I was really taken aback by how readily these businesses wanted to donate, and how happy they were to donate. You just don’t know if you don’t ask. If people say no, that’s their prerogative. But how many people will say yes? That’s really awesome.”

On a related note, Kristen asks the community to support another great cause, the Grant D. Mulligan Foundation Fundraiser set for Saturday, Aug. 13 from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Stony Creek Brewery, 5 Indian Neck Ave. Donations of any amount will be gratefully accepted at the free live-music event.

“My husband and his friends have organized it in memory of a friend who passed away, who went to Branford High School with them. It’s going to have an amazing array of music that is extraordinary,” says Kristen. “It’s open to the public, and we use the money that’s raised to give a scholarship to a Branford senior every year who is pursuing some kind of musical journey.”

Back to School, with Added Commitment

While Kristen is excited to be heading back to her classroom come fall, she also knows she will work to find a way to continue to funnel some of her energy toward helping others in her community.

“Teaching really is all-encompassing...but I have committed myself to do at least one thing per season, whether it's organizing a drive of some kind or going to the Community Dining Room for a special event night, or a get-together for the Short Beach parent group that I’m a part of. Because I’ve become so passionate about this in the past year, I don’t want to lose it. I really love it.”

She also says that her experience has taught her it doesn’t take a huge commitment for one person to try to make a difference. Pointing out the community that’s been helping her is made up of individuals, Kristen says maybe some, like her, might simply try to take to social media with an idea that can turn into doing good work for others.

“I’ve had people say ‘I’m so glad you did this,’ [or] ‘...thank you so much, I wanted to do something, but I just never got to it.’ But they’re helping me do these things. There’s no way I could ever have done any of this on my own,” says Kristen. “This community is really just individual people doing beautiful things. It’s just awesome.”