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FAMILY OF THE YEAR An award on road to recovery



Published: Fri, September 7, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The state award will be given next week.

By STEPHEN SIFF

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

WARREN -- Tammy Russell's salvation came on the heels of a man with a knife.

By 1995, years of crack cocaine abuse had already brought Russell pretty low, more times than she could count.

Crack took the $23 rent that would have prevented her from being evicted from a subsidized apartment in 1993, an eviction that landed her in a homeless shelter with her children for six months.

"When you are a drug addict, $23 is life-saving," she said.

Crack also took the money for bills, so that when Trumbull County Children's Services visited her house in 1994 the water and gas had been turned off. She lost her children, then ages 4, 9, 12 and 14, to foster care. Over the next few years, twice she gave birth to girls who were taken by authorities directly from the hospital.

Rock bottom: It was not long after the first girl was taken that Russell was awakened in her empty house by a knife at her throat. The man -- a fellow crack addict whom she knew -- forced her to go upstairs, and said he was going to kill her, Russell said. She jumped out of a second-floor window to escape, then a neighbor chased her assailant away with a gun.

That wasn't the bottom. The bottom for Russell came that night, when she again sat down with a lighter, pipe and pile of crack.

"I saw a light, like in those pictures with Jesus," said Russell, sitting on the porch of a brand-new home in southwest Warren, her two youngest girls, now 6 and 7, playing by her side. "It said you do or you die."

Russell did. The 40-year-old checked herself into rehab, got her children back and turned her life around.

Honored: Next week, Russell and her family will be honored as an "Ohio Family of the Year" at Public Children Services Association of Ohio conference near Columbus. They are one of five families chosen for the honor by the association, which represents children services agencies from all 88 of Ohio's counties.

"We just thought she had an interesting story and were basically very impressed with her," said Shawn Sabella, the association's director of operations.

Russell was nominated for the award by the Trumbull County agency, which gave her a similar award last year.

"I still glance at it," she said. "I still can't believe that it happened to me."

Nurse's assistant: For the past five years, Russell has worked as a nurses' assistant at Gillette Nursing Home, where she is chief steward for a union local with 79 members.

But work was never the problem for Russell, who ranked 31st from the top in the organization that runs Pittsburgh's Three River Stadium before she tried to flee her addiction by moving to Warren in 1991. In the 10 years since, she says she spent two years on public assistance. The problem was the drug addiction which began during middle school, she said.

Politeness: Determination, and a lot of prayer, ultimately allowed her to leave drugs behind, Russell said. The 30 days in an in-patient rehab center were like prison, she said, and then came the struggles to get her children back from children's services.

"She had a lot of really good names for me, and they were not Mary Lou," said Mary Lou Sutak, her caseworker there.

Russell said she realized that she needed politeness to get her children back after the addict's craving for instant gratification eased from her brain. She said she developed the virtue of patience on her job, which includes bathing and feeding elderly nursing home residents.

"I did patience, and I did tolerance, and my project now is to live life on life's terms," she said.




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