Russell Bernstein switched his major in college and had a few different jobs during the start of his career, but now he’s found his niche by working with special needs individuals and helping spread a positive message to children through his books and talks.
While attending Quinnipiac University, Russell switched his major from English to geriatrics. He says he was always close to both sets of his grandparents and his mother, who had passed away while he was attending college.
“That’s one thing I remember her saying is ‘You have a big heart, and you make people smile,’ and I like to make people happy,” Russell says.
Ironically, Russell worked at a children’s unit at Yale New Haven Hospital after college. He says he really enjoyed working there, saying it was fun working as a team, and he loved providing therapy and running groups.
“I had fun because…you get to make actual, real differences, and no day is the same,” Russell says.
Later on, he went to graduate school and got his master’s degree in organizational leadership. In his last course, one of his fellow students worked in human resources for Otis Elevator Company, for which Russell later began working. He joked that it proves that having a specific degree doesn’t matter as much as just having a degree.
“[I] did very well, won a lot of awards at the company,” says Russell.
However, he says he missed working with people. He called Neil Quatrano, founder of Behavioral Management, LLC, in North Haven, which provides services to individuals with intellectual disabilities or with autism spectrum disorders. Quatrano, with whom Russell had previously worked, told Russell he was on board and asked when he wanted to start.
Russell has been there ever since, and has done a lot of thing there, such as running groups, implementing daily exercises, organizing outings, and a multitude of other things for the special needs individuals served by the organization.
“I enjoy coming to work every day, and I didn’t have that at any of my other jobs,” Russell says. “They were interesting, they had interesting things about them, but this is just phenomenal.”
He also has some other careers, including being an author and guest speaker—his life has been “the most amazing roller coaster ride,” he says, adding that he’s grateful for all the people who’ve helped him along the way.
Right after he graduated college, Russell began writing a manuscript for his first book, about a boy who deals with bullying, but the book was rejected many times by publishers. He says he knew he had a good idea, but he just needed to flesh it out. After revising the manuscript, he finally got the call that his book would be published.
After that, Russell began reaching out to schools to spread the word about his book and the positive messages in it. His books feature a main character who overcomes bullying by using his creativity.
“You don’t have to be the strongest kid, you don’t have to be the smartest kid, you don’t have to be the most popular; if you have a good heart, if you use your creativity or the strengths that you have that are strong, then you’ll succeed,” Russell says.
One of his books, Doodles Lanhorn and the Quest to Save Inner Earth, sold more than 15,000 copies. Russell says he loves doing the talks at schools and answering kid’s questions.
“I cannot even tell you how cool it is to have a kid come up to you and say, ‘Hey, you made me feel more comfortable talking to somebody,’” Russell says.
Some of the things he talks about with the kids are perseverance, and the importance of creativity. One of the stories he shares is when his first child, a daughter, was born, she “would not sleep for an entire year,” so Russell would walk around with her a lot at night.
He says it made him feel drained both mentally and physically, and he wondered when he’d get the time to write. Russell says he wrote “99 percent” of the book on his phone, and would email what he wrote to himself so he could edit it on the computer when he had time.
“So I’d hold my baby in one arm, and I would pace back and forth” while typing on the phone, Russell says.
He says he tells the kids he speaks to that if “you want something bad enough, you make it happen” by multitasking, and that they can find ways to get things done.
Knowing that he’s had a positive effect not only on children, but also those with special needs, Russell says that it’s the greatest feeling anyone can strive for. He says that sometimes people will do things and don’t get to see if they’re having a positive effect, but he gets to see that. He says it’s not only fun, but he feels good about doing it.
“I always tell the kids, if you see someone sitting by themselves, say, ‘Hi,’” Russell says, “You don’t have to be their best friend, but you never know what that kid is going through.”