Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. -- Marines often find themselves in foreign lands fighting to ensure safety at home. This selfless devotion to patriotic duty takes them far away for extended periods of time. Their resilient spirits and sense of brotherhood keep them in good spirits, but nothing excites a Marine more, other than a good fire fight, than receiving a care package from loved ones. This simple act has the ability to bring out tears of joy from some of the most fearless warriors history has seen.
Unfortunately, for reasons ranging from financial strain to the absence of family, some Marines never experience the pure elation of receiving even a single letter. And while they are always willing to share what they receive with each other, it’s the knowing that someone back home took the time to think of them that gives them a sense of ease and rejuvenates their will.
Since Operation Desert Shield, Maxine Russell has worked tirelessly to ensure service members feel supported, loved and appreciated for their sacrifices. She does this by sending care packages to deployed troops, adopting families for the holidays and providing grief counseling to those who return dealing with post-traumatic stress.
“A lot of them call me their grandmother, and that just makes me feel so good,” said Russell, as she flipped through a photo album containing pictures of Marines deployed overseas holding up various snacks. “Look at them, they’re all smiles. I’ve gotten to know so many of them so well, and they’re the ones that are making all of the sacrifices. They’re heroes, all of them, for what they do.”
Despite nearly 30 years of sending care packages, Russell is exceedingly modest about her efforts in supporting troops.
“I grew up in the Vietnam Era,” said Russell. “A lot of my friends served in Vietnam, and they came back and they were called names and spat on. Some of them are lucky and are fine, but others never were the same. I want to make sure from here on out, everyone in the military knows they’re appreciated, loved and supported.”
Maxine’s spirit of philanthropy extends beyond military. Her contributions to humanity started when she was an inner city school educator in Watts and South Los Angeles. She took a proactive approach in her teaching style, by encouraging positive behavior in her classroom. Students who exhibited excellent work ethic and manners were rewarded with activities such as trips to the theatre, beach or swimming and piano lessons.
“Unfortunately there isn’t much for them to do in Watts or [South Los Angeles],” said Russell. “This was a way for me to show them good behavior gets rewarded, and that there is a world full of possibilities waiting for them.”
After 20 years of inspiring young minds, life changing events shifted Maxine’s passion from teaching to grief counseling.
On April 14, 2005 tragedy struck the Russell household. Mr. and Mrs. Russell received a phone call from the U.S. State Department informing them that their son Darren had been hit by a truck and killed.
Darren had been following his mother’s footsteps in education, and had been teaching English to more than 1,200 children in Guangzhou, China.
Filled with heartache, Maxine relied on her faith to help her through her adversity.
“I remember being in temple and it was a prayer service for Yom Kippur and the Rabbi was saying, ‘I’m sure some of you who have lost loved ones would rather be with them,’ and I was thinking absolutely,” said Russell somberly as she recalled the memory. “And then he added, ‘but if you do that who is going to keep their memory alive,’ and it was just like a light went off, and immediately I started thinking of ways I could honor his memory.”
Having dealt with grief and post-traumatic stress, Maxine decided to dedicate her life to honoring her son by volunteering to counsel veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress and military families dealing with loss.
“I think I was kind of ready to be a grief counselor because you go through so much,” said Russell with a calm and soothing voice. “And people look at you and say, ‘how can you do that after dealing with your son’s [loss],’ but it’s almost like a natural calling because you have that bond, and it’s a bond you never want to have because it involves losing a loved one, but it’s there.”
Whether it’s through a package received in some country far off filled with a taste of home, or a veteran who has returned and is struggling with his own grief, it’s clear to see that members from all branches benefit from Darren’s legacy.
At 70 years of age, Maxine has no intentions of slowing down. She has a list of mental health professionals willing to donate their time to help veterans struggling to cope with PTS, and hopes to find a building where they can work out of to provide these services.
“As we grow older and mine and my husband’s finances change it gets a little more challenging,” said Russell as she thinks about the future of her volunteering. “But whatever the cost I’ll continue to do this, because this is where my main focus is, this is what I care about the most.”