As many of you already know, I, who at the age of 57 had been lucky enough to have a completely full, exciting, fulfilled life as a family doctor with family and friends around me, received some devastating news on the Monday after Thanksgiving. I have Stage 4, incurable pancreatic cancer. The treatments available to me are palliative, they will slow things down, but they won’t cure the disease. As a physician, in particular as a palliative care physician, this news is shocking but totally consistent with the findings that I saw on the CT scan that day.
I know I only have limited time (barring some wonderful miracle which we can all fervently wish for) but I remain realistic in all of this that the pretty much inevitable outcome is that I won’t survive this pancreatic cancer, and that some time in the next few months – maybe a little bit longer – it will catch up to me and I will not be with you.
However, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about the fact that one of the things this illness has done is to help me to focus in on what’s really important. It may be trite to say so, but I have had the most phenomenally lucky life. I have had all of the opportunities that this world can offer, I have never had to want for anything. I have had the best education, the best lifestyle, the best family, the best friends, the best colleagues, the best patients that anyone could have desired. So, in all of this, my thoughts are not to what might have been, but what is still possible. Because I know that when I got to this point, I realized that there are so many people who have had far fewer opportunities.
The group in particular that my family and I have worked with very hard, is a community of kids and adults in Tanzania, at Nkoaranga, which many of you know is the site of my daughter’s organization, The Small Things, or TST. This amazing organization, founded and led by my daughter, Bekka Ross Russell, has been part of revolutionizing the approach to child welfare in East Africa. Instead of placing children in orphanages, only to find that a few years later they may be still alive but with fewer opportunities than perhaps they even started with, these children are being educated, being reintegrated with their community, being reunited with their families whenever possible. Through TST, their families receive the support and assistance that allow these extended families to give the kind of care they always wanted to give, but for the fact that they never had the resources to do it. TST gives chances, not charity.
Tanzania, like many countries in Africa, remains incredibly poor in economic terms. The banking systems are rudimentary, the ability to loan money to help people get out of poverty is virtually nonexistent, and education is startlingly inaccessible. Only recently have new ways of thinking about poverty alleviation – empowering families through micro-loans and micro-grants, and providing educational and vocational training opportunities – seemed to be turning the tide in some of these tragic situations. So, for some of these families, the key to survival is not whether or not you get a college education. It’s a matter of whether your single mother can get funding to build a chicken coop with ten chickens, coached on the rudimentaries of chicken husbandry and how to reinvest the money you make so you don’t lose it all in one cycle – or whether she’s forced to put you in an orphanage to ensure your survival. These are the kinds of programs that are breaking the cycle – allowing families to stay with their children and raise another generation.
Despite the many children (over 100) that TST has been able to keep at home with family members, more than 50 have also needed residential care in the orphanage or Happy Family Children’s Village over the last seven years, and I have had the immense pleasure of watching those kids as they grow. We have gotten to know them personally over three trips to Tanzania, and we fully sponsor two girls, Dainess and Pendo, who captured our hearts over the years.
I also owe something much more personal to the community of Nkoaranga. My two grandchildren, Zawadi and Simon, spent the first three and five years of their lives, respectively, living at Nkoaranga Orphanage. Their infectious joy and loving spirits could never have survived without the love and nurturing of the caregivers there. Watching them thrive makes it even clearer to me that all of the 150+ children in TST’s care have potential that is effectively unlimited, with the right support.
I would like to make it my goal – my legacy – in my last few months and in my memory to provide a safe foundation for this organization that has already done so much and can do so much more in the future. Dorothy and I have already committed $100,000 toward this fund (and we are not from the “one percent”), which will be called the David A. Ross Russell Legacy Fund, in order to try to build a solid foundation on which to support future programs and security for this Nkoaranga community, which has welcomed our family with such open arms over the years.
I would ask every single one of you to look into your hearts and try to decide whether what you currently prioritize is as important as some of the other things in this life. It has taken a huge assault on my complacency to recognize how fragile this is, and to re-emphasize what is truly important. For us, and for me, and to any extent to which you wish to memorialize or honor me or in any way to contribute, this would be much appreciated. But the truth is, you shouldn’t do it for me. You should do it for you – because it is so gratifying to see the incredible progress these children and families can make, when given the opportunity. It is the greatest feeling in the world, to know you’ve made a real difference in a wonderful child’s life. My goal, and it’s a highly optimistic one, would be to reach several million dollars in an endowment that would take away the threat that global downturns, bitcoin corruption, or various political chicaneries could disrupt this highly valuable work. I hope you will join me.
Please look into your hearts and see what you can contribute. Contributions can be made by check to to The Small Things, Inc. at 80 Cosey Beach Avenue, Apt. 4, East Haven, CT 06512 or online, below. Please put in the memo on the check that this contribution is intended for the David A Ross Russell Legacy Fund. All donations are tax deductible as TST is a 501(c)3, and donations may be one-time or recurring.
Thank you very much for your indulgence. I guess I only get one chance to do this, so thank you for listening.
Love to you all,
David Ross Russell