Remembering Mrs. Russell
By Lindsay Doty
Stacks of Amazon boxes packed tightly with children’s books are being delivered to South Elementary School in Danville, finding a home in the cozy book nook inside the school library.
The books are being purchased and donated by the community as a way to honor Michele Russell or Mrs. Russell as they know her best, a beloved third-grade teacher who died last month after a long battle with metastatic breast cancer.
“She created a beautiful world for all of us, and I hope these books allow the children to continue to see the beauty,” said South Elementary librarian and close friend Michelle Barber.
The wish list contains books ranging from classics like “The Runaway Bunny” to National Geographic Readers about whales and butterflies, some of Russell’s favorite topics. Her daughter Lydia Delamarter also contributed to the list, adding a few nostalgic titles that her mom would read to her and her brothers when they were little.
So far, 140 books have been purchased in Russell’s honor. Each one is marked with an “In memory of” sticker.
“Seeing the donations from parents, staff and friends would have made her heart burst with excitement for a school she loved so much,” said Renee Bowman, former South Elementary teacher, who spearheaded the project.
Bowman remembers several years ago when Mrs. Russell lost her best friend (a school librarian in Wayne Township) to breast cancer. She had books donated in her honor. Now, Bowman decided to do the same for Russell.
“I’m hopeful the students and staff at South will see Mrs. Russell in the books we’re adding, from her love of animals, nature, her home state of Maine, as well as books about how to handle grief, sadness and loss,” she said.
Mrs. Russell was a teacher who found her calling for education later in life. She joined the South Elementary team eight years ago as a teaching assistant and then went back to college to earn her teaching degree at age 50. She ended up with a job at South teaching third grade in the Danville Community School Corporation.
In 2017, upon taking the job, she called it one of her great life accomplishments.
“This love of learning about our natural world and imparting that interest to youth began early on for me but grew during these experiences with my own children and others,” she said in 2017.
“I will strive to inspire them to explore their world and foster their own lifelong passion for learning,” Russell shared in a 2017 post to her school families.
In the following years, she became an effervescent educator who embraced all the “extras” that come with the job of a modern-day elementary school teacher. Whether it was donning her best Hawaiin grass skirt ensemble on spirit day and waving along a line of minivans at school pick up or refereeing an ambitious game of tug of war at recess, she gave it her all.
“She loved opportunities for her students to build memories and work together,” said Bowman. “Michele would often give up her own prep period to watch her students read in a comfy corner of the library, participate in reading-related activities or just listen to them talk about books they are reading.”
Teacher friends say they were inspired by her dedication to kids.
“Mrs. Russell wanted every child to know his or her value. She knew the importance of reading books because children could see themselves in the stories and believe that they could make a difference in the world around them,” said fellow third-grade teacher Tammy McDugle.
After her death, South parents shared stories about the impact Mrs. Russell had on their children.
South Elementary parent Stephanie Schoeneman said two years ago Russell had a huge impact on her daughter, Lainey.
“After transitioning to a new school from North to South she was very nervous about the change, but Mrs. Russell gave her all the confidence she needed to succeed. She truly loved her job and her kids, and she went above and beyond for them, with a huge smile on her face every day,” said Schoeneman.
In her spare time, Russell was a 4-H project leader, announced horse shows and led a Girl Scout troop, to name a few.
Loved ones say she had a never-give-up attitude, even when cancer took over.
“Michele didn’t talk about her cancer very often with others. She didn’t want it to define her. She had fought with cancer two other times and had decided to live life to the fullest no matter what. Even at her weakest moments, she would ask me to tell her about my day. She truly wanted to know, recalls Barber.
Even though the school was getting updates on Russell’s treatments, the announcement of her death in January was a shock to the staff and students. Counseling has been offered at school for grief support. Students wrote letters and drew pictures for Mrs. Russell’s grieving family.
“It is so hard to all of a sudden not see someone that was in your life every day. I think we are all still struggling with that,” said Barber.
She hopes the books will bring comfort to those who knew Russell and inspire future generations of readers.
“Our memories of Michele will remain, and I believe the love that she shared with each of us has made us better people.”
To donate a book to South Elementary in Danville in Mrs. Russell’s honor, search the Amazon wish list http://amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/3TBX2LXCJSB9U?ref_=wl_share&fbclid=IwAR0EfaWS0F4i0toW76gXRNv-ls7wTPMc6VxU9DeOeua-qdrpQDktTlycc7o