Hollidaysburg teacher ‘fills gap with concern, compassion’

Russell spearheads events to help others

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Hollidaysburg teacher Todd Russell works with Xavier Smith on Wednesday at Hollidaysburg Junior High School. Russell, who had polio as a child, says he knows what it is like to need help and has undertaken a variety of projects over the years to better the community.

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Todd Russell believes it is important to give back and help others.

Russell, 52, who now teaches eighth-grade pre-honors science and ninth-grade college-bound science in the Hollidaysburg Area School District, was stricken with polio as a child.

“When I had polio in second grade, I was in Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh for three days. My parents were told I may not walk again. I had to teach myself how to walk again. I was told I couldn’t play sports, but I played them all,” Russell said. “I got help growing up from my community, friends and family. I know what it is like to be in that situation.”

Russell, who is the second vice president of the Hollidaysburg Area Education Association and serves as liaison for Cluster II of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which includes all Blair County schools plus State College and Philipsburg-Osceola, recently was presented with two awards.

In June he received an Educational Leader Award for his outstanding community service by the PSEA, and in September he received the Labor Award from the Blair-Bedford Central Labor Council.

Russell doesn’t see the awards as an individual honor.

“As liaison, I am the contact person. The projects run through me. We have an outstanding team. I just happen to be the head. There are a lot of other people involved who don’t get the recognition. It is more of a team award,” said Russell, who has taught at Hollidaysburg since 1993.

As liaison, Russell has spearheaded many charitable events.

He calls Books for Babies his “pride and joy.”

Thanks to the efforts of Russell and Cluster II, more than 3,000 new books are provided each year for newborns through the Books for Babies Project at local hospitals. Starting with UPMC Altoona and Conemaugh Nason Medical Center in Roaring Spring, the program recently expanded to the Mount Nittany Medical Center.

That project is a joint venture among the educators and support professionals in Blair, Centre and Clearfield counties, Altoona Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center and First Book Marketplace of Washington, D.C.

“When we started the program at UPMC Altoona, we wanted to promote literacy, so every newborn would receive a new book,” Russell said.

Russell and the Cluster II members this past year raised more than $2,000 and collected food for the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry in Altoona through its trivia night project.

“We get all of the districts in the cluster involved. This year’s event will be held Thursday at TGI Friday’s. We usually have 60 to 70 teachers come,” Russell said.

Don Belsey, food pantry director, said Russell plays an important role.

“He fills a gap with his concern and compassion for the clients of the pantry. He does a great job gathering a lot of food for us. He is a consummate professional. He not only talks the talk but walks the walk. He cares not only about his students but also the kids at the pantry,” Belsey said.

Following up on the successes of Books for Babies, Russell led the effort into assisting the veterans at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center. Again, working with Barnes & Noble, the cluster purchased Nooks at a low cost. The “Nooks & Books — the Thank You Project” donated the Nooks and digital books for use in large print to the veterans. The veteran project evolved into Operation Contact Vets that donated computers to the VA hospital. Russell acquired computers from the Hollidaysburg Area School District and updated the hard drives.

Russell and Cluster II members also donated to other projects.

Russell led the cluster in donating $1,000 to develop a library for the Austin’s Playroom Project at UPMC Altoona. The project is part of the Mario Lemieux Foundation that builds rooms in hospitals for children to play while a parent or sibling is in the hospital.

“We were the second highest donor next to Sheetz,” Russell said.

The cluster also worked with Variety, a nonprofit children’s charity out of Pittsburgh, to have a bicycle retrofitted for a Hollidaysburg student with multiple disabilities.

“We hope to have a bike to give a kid in every school in the cluster,” Russell said.

Russell has played a key role, said Mike Lehmier, field director for the PSRA central region.

“He is the one who is focused as far as community activities is concerned. He took the bull by the horns for the way we could work in the community,” Lehmier said. “He has had a significant impact; his reach has gone beyond the cluster. Books for Babies is now a statewide initiative.”

Russell, who grew up in South Fork and graduated from Forest Hills High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, started his teaching career in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. He also spent four years as department head of teaching the underserved at Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.

Russell, who thought about a career in physical therapy, decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, Thomas, and become a teacher. His father was a journalism professor and department head at UPJ.

“I had many credits in the science field so I decided to go ahead and concentrate in the science world. My dad was an English guy; I wasn’t going down that route,” Russell said.

Russell plans to continue teaching for several more years. He said it is important that he remains physically active.

“I work out at the Y Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I bike and use the machines. I swim two miles a week, and I don’t want to end up sitting in a wheelchair,” Russell said.

He also said it is important that teachers are active in the community.

“We want to show that the teachers union is not an evil entity. We are not the bad guys. We want to show we do as much outside the classroom as we do inside the classroom. We sponsor many community events. I push the other districts to do it. You need to get out into the community and do things,” Russell said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.