When Nicole Russell came on the line for her interview, the first thing she shared was that because of the holidays, her days “have been a bit crazy…but it’s all worth it because it’s for the children.”
This pretty much sums up her life.
Her organization, Precious Dreams Foundation (PDF) has managed to touch thousands of youth via its mission to provide sleep comfort tools for foster children placed in transitional housing who are left only with their thoughts at night. Nicole’s passion for the children is felt by anyone she encounters, even by phone. She left me incredibly inspired to do more for those that have a different set of life challenges. You wouldn’t be able to tell that she had a completely different career a few years ago.
From 2011 to 2018, Nicole managed VIP services at Madison Square Garden full time. The lucrative, high-profile job frequently had her in the company of celebrities and top executives, but she always knew she wanted more. When she decided to launch the foundation in 2012 with her mother, it was a challenge to balance both.
“I felt like I was living a double life,” she shared. Eventually, she made the decision to pour into the foundation full time and quit her stable job to grow the non-profit.
The risk was worth it.
To date, Precious Dreams has chapters across the country and have partnered with numerous notable figures over the years. Most recently added to the line- up of supporters? Lady Gaga.
Nicole shared her journey of pivoting from her corporate career to running an incredibly impactful non-profit, and what it takes to live out your passion.
The Precious Dreams Foundation does such important work and has been incredibly successful, but you didn’t necessarily come from the nonprofit sector before launching it. Can you walk us through its origin story?
I started the organization with my mother in 2012 and that was really the year I recognized that children in foster care are not provided with sleep support or comfort tools. When they entered these transitional homes, it broke my heart to see them struggling due to not receiving sleep training. At that moment, I wanted to do something about it. Shortly after my mother and I started putting together these care packages to support other children that were navigating uncertainty, whether it was children living in residential or children living in homeless shelters. We wanted to make sure every child had these basic necessities (pillow cases, blankets and stuffed animals among other things) to help them get through the night, especially children, who don’t have a parent in the next noom to run to or someone to cry to when they have a bad dream. So, it started with a small goal to provide comfort packages and from there it grew into US development programming, us growing chapters, and now we are providing wraparound services. It’s grown beyond my wildest dreams. I never would have thought I would be doing this work full-time, but I feel so blessed that I am.
I wanted to take a step back and look at the impact and influence you’ve had over the years. Some extremely high-profile people have attached themselves to the organization. Besides the incredible mission that PDF is driven by, why do you think that your organization has garnered the level of support that it has?
So a little background on me, when I started the foundation, I was managing VIP services at Madison Square Garden wage. Essentially, my full-time job was to take care of New York City’s 1% and get all of our biggest celebrities courtside at the games. I was living a crazy double life where I was spending my evenings catering to these high-profile celebrities. And then during the day, I was off volunteering my time to all of these shelters. So when I decided to leave my full-time job and do Precious Dreams, I took every single resource I had gained over the years with me. A lot of the support is from building these relationships with people and them kind of seeing how passionate I was about the work and wanting to support what we do.
I always believe there’s two reasons people get involved with organizations, and it’s typically that the mission resonates with them, or they have a personal connection to it. So, initially, we had a lot of celebrities support us because we’re demanding that our favorite brands, artists and corporations show up and contribute to our communities. And so, I think everyone now is like, what can I do? And our mission is so simple. We’re helping children.
That makes total sense. Speaking of people with loud voices that use them for good, I was so excited to hear about your most recent partnership with Lady Gaga’s foundation, Born This Way. Not just because of her incredible influence, but she just seems like a really good person. Do you mind walking me through how that partnership came about?
Yes, this is the second time we’ve worked with the Born This Way Foundation. They actually reached out to us because they were working on a kindness campaign for back to school and they wanted to support us. And I remember that call and thinking it’s kind of crazy to hear they had even found us. This led to our initial collaboration, and now, they’ve circled back to support our mission to help distribute 10,000 gifts of comfort for the holiday season. They are sponsoring our entire wish list for us [for one shelter], which means providing all of the gifts for our children, and we match those gifts with comfort bags.
Can you tell me more about this campaign?
Yes, this holiday season we’ll be providing those 10,000 gifts of comfort I mentioned for youth in foster care and homeless shelters with “comfort drops” across the country from now until Christmas.
We’re not doing a typical drive this year. We asked each child from all of the states that we serve to tell us one thing that gives them comfort and we are fulfilling those wish lists one city at a time by actually shopping for those items. So we’ve tapped into local churches, our corporate partners and other non-profit organizations, like Born This Way. We just want to make sure the children living in foster care or a homeless shelter feels seen this holiday season. We’ve literally been shopping every day. We’re hosting an event with Color of Change in Los Angeles at the Covenant House. This is all tied around the ten-year anniversary for us and I am so super proud of being able to provide young people with some joy this holiday season.
Wow, that is incredible. You know, I want to take a bit of a step back and discuss the huge pivot you made from the corporate sector to nonprofit. That was a big jump. How did you feel when you took that leap?
I always knew that I wanted to work with children full time. I think the hardest thing for me and anyone that starts a non-profit is choosing between your passion and taking care of yourself. When I started the foundation, for many years we were working with such a small budget that I needed to work at Madison Square Garden to pay for my life. It took some years to get to a point where our board was actually able to create a salary for me.
It was not an easy decision to leave my job because I really loved it. But it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. My calling is to support young people, and I needed to do that full-time.
Although it was a bit of a departure from your role at MSG, Precious Dreams makes total sense. Your books on therapy solutions and educational background in psychology really reinforces the innate love for what you’re doing now.
I have to say, I didn’t always fully understand there was such a need for this work and all the challenges youth face going through transition periods. I never desired to start a non-profit. I actually had to teach myself everything that I know to start it. It literally began with me Googling things and trying to figure it out: what are the first steps to start an organization? How do you create a business plan and annual budget? And how do you apply for grants? I had no idea how to do any of that. I didn’t go to school for that. But I just, I felt so strongly about this work and immediately, after seeing the impact that was made at our very first event, I knew I needed to put everything I had into this. And it’s working.