Don Russell hard at work at the Community Thrift Store, which he founded in 2000.
Don Kent Russell, the leading voice in non-profit work in Pickens County for two decades, died Thursday, October 29, 2020 after a year of declining health, though he continued to work a full schedule until the very end.
Russell, who moved here in 1997, leaves a legacy from founding several of the biggest non-profits in this county and serving on the boards of virtually all the non-profit groups here. He was recognized in 2001 as the Pickens County Citizen of the Year.
Among his biggest accomplishments was the founding of the Community Thrift Store, which marked its 20th anniversary this year and has returned more than $6 million to other non-profits in the community.
He also founded the Community Emergency Shelter, North Georgia Men’s Christian Fellowship, and the local Boys & Girls Club of North Georgia.
He is survived by his wife, Mary, who he credited as a partner on his different projects, and his son Mike Russell, his daughter Kim Liggin, and his grandsons Austin Russell and Nathan Russell.
Services for Don Russell will be at the Jasper United Methodist Church Wednesday at 11 a.m. Due to COVID restrictions, seating is limited to 80, however it can watched via livestream on the church’s Facebook and YouTube channels.
Showing Russell’s widespread impact, at least three prominent buildings/facilities are named in his honor: The Thrift Store building, the Boys & Girls Club Teen Center, and the Piedmont Mountainside Chest Pain Center.
Russell showed time and time again that he took his bold visions and saw that they came to completion, all for the benefit of the poor in the community. He remarked in an interview for the 20th anniversary of the Thrift Store that they gave away more in merchandise to the needy than they sold, saying, “that is not a loss, but a community’s gain.”
A member of the Boys and Girls Club board of directors, Dan Huth said this of Russell, “I marveled at how this unassuming man could accomplish such extraordinary feats. Don did it all, from founding a successful men's fellowship prayer breakfast to raising the money to build and run the massive Community Thrift Store which has currently given over $6,000,000 in cash grants to Pickens County charities.
“So. How did he do it? By never doubting his vision. Never doubting that God would provide. And by being the kind of man who brought out the best in every person he counted on. If he counted on you, you did not want to disappoint Don Russell,” Huth said.
Don Kent Russell was born on August 31, 1939 in Troy, Tenn. to Shadrach Jones Russell and Hazel Augusta McLemore Russell. He had two siblings, Billy Joe Russell, born August 23rd, 1941 and Gale Read Russell, born January 23, 1936, both now deceased.
In autobiographical notes Russell prepared several years ago, he wrote, “My father spoke little but was a good example.” Don was born at home and grew up in a home without indoor plumbing. His father ran a service station, working six days a week while closing on Sundays, and for a period worked at the Oak Ridge nuclear facility with the U.S. military efforts to develop the atomic bomb during World War II.
The family later moved to Clinton, Tenn. and Don wrote that, “Our new home was like others we had rented: four rooms, no halls, no closets, no plumbing and an outhouse out back. We had a large farm behind our house with the Clinch River as a boundary for my brother to explore. We spent many hours with our BB guns rambling through the countryside.”
Don wrote that in 8th grade, “I learned to love reading. We had no books in our home except the Bible. I found an old copy of Robinson Crusoe and read it many times. I also found that I could check out books from the library and read daily. Books opened my eyes to a different world from the one I knew. Perhaps it started me dreaming a little of how life could be. I continue to enjoy reading.”
Russell attended Clinton High School which became the first forced integrated school in the south. A picture showing Don and his brother at this time hangs in a museum in Clinton detailing this period.
At 19 he joined the Army. “I entered the Army in January 1959 and was released in March 1962. I was extended for two months because of the Berlin Crisis. I stayed out for 88 days and did not know what I wanted to do so I reenlisted in June 1962 and spent three more years in the Army. I was released in June 1965 and had no idea what I wanted to do but I did not consider staying in longer.”
During his time in the service, Russell was stationed in Japan and later in Paris as part of a special NATO assignment. In his notes, Russell wrote, he “spent many days rambling in Paris and enjoying the sights and people. I carried a book with me and read a lot sitting in the parks watching the people go by.”
Russell moved to Atlanta after being released and found work first collecting past due accounts for a finance company.
He later moved to work in finance at Fort McPherson from December 5, 1966 until he retired on September 30, 1995.
He and Mary Adella Dampier Russell were married on March 9, 1968. They met while she was in the Army at Ft. McPherson, Ga. and he was working there as an Army civilian. Mary worked as a Christian educator and a partner in many of the non-profit foundations. She is also an accomplished artist.
During this time, the family recalled that Russell always bought used cars for himself, but made sure his wife had new cars. The first new car he ever bought for himself was a small Chevy pickup, necessary for work starting the Thrift Store.
The couple moved to Bent Tree in 1997.
In 2000, Russell wrote in notes about the founding of the teen center, that it became apparent that the county needed something for the kids here and he first worked to establish an afterschool program at one of the middle schools.
This led to the formation of the group forming the Boys & Girls Club a few years later. Don stated in his notes, “The Boys & Girls Clubs said that we were too small a community to have a standalone club and we would have to come under a larger club. We visited Cartersville and Gainesville to request that we come under them. Neither was acceptable and I [said] that we were opening a club; it could be Boys & Girls Clubs of America or Girls & Boys Clubs of Pickens County. The president of the Boys & Girls Clubs agreed that we could open as a standalone club provided we also took Gilmer and Fannin counties.”
It started with one middle school at a building in Roper Park in 2005 and quickly expanded as they hired a director and eventually built the permanent club building in Roper Park.
Russell was recognized for his hard work, by being named to the Georgia Boys & Girls Clubs Hall of Fame and later awarded the National Bronze Medallion, which is for board members who have provided exceptionally devoted and exemplary service to a Boys & Girls Club.
Russell also overcome many obstacles and doubts on the way to successfully operating the Thrift Store for two decades. Preparing for the 20th anniversary, he said during an interview, “ If you believe in yourself, get excited about your work and pray, God will do it.” And that organization with their yearly grants certainly did succeed. Most every group working to help others in this community has received these grants and support, all from Russell’s vision.
Russell’s list of local accomplishments include:
Founder & Chairman – Pickens Co. Community Resource Association, Inc.
Founder & President – Community Thrift Store
Co - Founder – Community Emergency Shelter
Founder & Treasurer – North Georgia Men’s Christian Fellowship
Former President – Pickens Co. Family Connections
Founder – Prison Ministry After-Care
Former Board Member – The Joy House
Former Executive Director – Keep Pickens Beautiful
Former Chairman – Community/Social Development Task Force of the Pickens Co. Economic Development Commission
Former Member – Georgia Mountains Hospice Advisory Board
Former Board Member – Good Samaritan Health & Wellness Center
Founder & Board Member – Boys & Girls Clubs of North Georgia – Inducted into the Georgia Boys & Girls Club Hall of Fame 2013
Founder & Former Director – Community Resource Center
Former Board Member – Timothy House
Former Board Member – Ruth House.