ORLANDO, Fla. – The Russell Home for Atypical Children became the first of its kind in Florida in 1951, a licensed home for kids with special needs.
Today, their mission to provide a family environment to all the residents remains the same.
Family is the key word here. Betty Turner’s grandmother, Vantrease Russell, started the home when her doctor asked if she could care for a child with special needs.
Russell had seven children of her own but offered to help, in her words, “To see if it would work out.”
From that point on, caring for children with special needs became her lifelong mission, one that has been passed down through generations.
“I believe my grandmother always put things in our head when we were little,” Turner remembered. “She would teach us what I think she wanted us to do when we were older.”
Today, Turner is the nonprofit’s administrator and her sister is the director.
“Back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, there were no homes. There were institutions,” Turner said. “So I feel like grandma’s home is very special because it is a home.”
It’s also special because it relies completely on private funding. Twenty-four residents of all ages live at the Russell Home, and many have lived there since they were children. The oldest is 73. He arrived when he was two.
Turner said she remembers a time when families would drop their kids off at her grandmother’s small home.
“It was a different time,” Turner said, adding that most of the residents don’t have family that visit.
Despite that, laughter and celebration fill the home which now exceeds 9,000 square feet and includes dorms, a large kitchen, several classrooms and a theater. Jeannie Flynt has taught at the Russell Home for 11 years.
“These kids are like brothers and sisters,” Flynt said. “They fight, they argue and they love. It’s amazing. It’s a home.”
Flynt’s son Matthew is also with special needs and comes to work with her.
“There’s never a bad day here, never,” Flynt said. “I don’t care what kind of mood you’re in, you can come here and you will be laughing. They can make you smile no matter what.”
Gracy Waddell agrees. She has been a caregiver for 11 years.
“When you come in here, you feel nothing but love,” Waddell said. “If you’re sad, you forget all about that. They make you feel so happy.”
Troy Huber volunteers several times a week.
“When I’m not working, I’m here,” Huber said, adding that he’s often here up to 10 hours a day doing everything from yard work to kitchen duty. “These kids have changed my life.”
“We have an amazing staff and volunteers,” Turner said. “They are family and they don’t act like caregivers. They love what they do and it shows in the way our children are.”
“Grandma Russell said to love children and love them unconditionally,” Huber recalled. “And it’s here all the time. I see it all the time.”