This organization is giving away 10,000 ‘comfort gifts’ to foster children for the holidays

Credit: Precious Dreams Foundation

When Nicole Russell came online for her interview, the first thing she shared was that because of the holidays, her days “have been a little crazy…but it’s worth it because it’s for the children.”

That pretty much sums up his life.

Its organization, Precious Dreams Foundation (PDF) has succeeded in reaching thousands of young people through its mission to provide sleep comfort tools for children placed in transitional housing who have only their thoughts at night. Nicole’s passion for children is felt by everyone she meets, even over the phone. She left me incredibly inspired to do more for those with a different set of life challenges. You couldn’t tell 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 work often brought her into the company of celebrities and senior executives, but she always knew she wanted more. When she decided to start the foundation in 2012 with her mother, it was a challenge to balance the two.

“I felt like I was living a double life,” she shared. Eventually, she made the decision to dedicate herself full-time to the foundation and quit her steady job to grow the non-profit organization.

The risk was worth it.

To this day, Precious Dreams has chapters across the country and has partnered with many notable figures over the years. Most recently added to the list of supporters? Lady Gaga.

Nicole shared her pivotal journey from her corporate career to running an incredibly impactful nonprofit, and what it takes to pursue her 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 you started it. Can you tell us about his origin story?

I started the organization with my mom in 2012 and that was really the year I realized that foster kids weren’t getting sleep aids or comfort tools. When they walked into these halfway houses, it broke my heart to see them struggling because they weren’t getting sleep training. At that time, I wanted to do something about it. Shortly after, my mother and I began to set up these care programs to help other children who were navigating uncertainty, whether they were children living in residences or children living in homeless shelters. We wanted to make sure every child had those basic necessities (pillowcases, blankets and stuffed animals among others) to help them get through the night, especially children, who don’t have a parent in the next noom to run or someone to cry when they have a bad dream. So it started with a small goal of providing convenience packages and from there it grew into US development programs, growing us into chapters, and now we provide full services. It grew beyond my wildest dreams. I never thought I would do this job 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 have had over the years. Some extremely prominent people have attached themselves to the organization. Besides the incredible mission that drives PDF, why do you think your organization has gotten the level of support it has?

So a little background on me, when I started the foundation, I was managing VIP services at Madison Square Garden salary. Basically, my full-time job was looking after New York’s 1% and bringing all of our biggest celebrities onto the field at the games. I was living a crazy double life where I spent my evenings serving these high profile celebrities. And then during the day, I was volunteering in all these shelters. So when I decided to quit my full-time job and do Precious Dreams, I took with me all the resources I had acquired over the years. A lot of the support comes from building those relationships with people and they kind of saw how passionate I was about the work and wanting to support what we do.

I always believe that there are two reasons people get involved in organizations, and that’s usually because the mission resonates with them, or because they have a personal connection to it. So initially we had a lot of celebrities supporting us because we demand that our favorite brands, artists, and businesses show up and contribute to our communities. And so, I think everybody’s wondering now, what can I do? And our mission is so simple. We help children.

It is quite logical. Speaking of people with loud voices using 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. Can you tell me how this partnership came about?

Yes, this is the second time we have worked with the Born This Way Foundation. They actually contacted 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 I thought it was a little crazy to hear that they even found us. This led to our initial collaboration, and now they have returned to support our mission to help distribute 10,000 holiday cheer gifts. They sponsor our entire wishlist for us [for one shelter], which means providing all the gifts for our children, and we match these gifts with comfort bags.

Can you tell me more about this campaign?

Yes, this holiday season we will be providing these 10,000 Gifts of Comfort I mentioned for youth in foster care and homeless shelters with “comfort drops” across the country by Christmas.

We are not doing a typical ride this year. We’ve asked every child in every state we serve to tell us one thing that brings them comfort, and we’re filling those wish lists one city at a time by purchasing these items. So we tapped into local churches, our corporate partners, and other nonprofits, like Born This Way. We just want to make sure kids living in foster care or homeless shelter feel seen this holiday season. We literally went shopping every day. We are hosting an event with Color of Change in Los Angeles at the Covenant House. It’s all tied into the tenth anniversary for us and I’m so proud to be able to give the youngsters some joy this holiday season.

It’s incredible. You know, I want to take a step back and discuss the huge pivot you’ve made from the corporate sector to nonprofits. It was a big leap. How did you feel when you took the leap?

I always knew I wanted to work with children full time. I think the hardest thing for me and anyone starting a nonprofit is choosing between your passion and taking care of yourself. When I started the foundation, for many years we worked on such a small budget that I needed to work at Madison Square Garden to pay for my life. It took a few years to get to a point where our board was able to create a salary for me.

It was not an easy decision to quit my job because I really loved it. But that wasn’t what I was supposed to do. My vocation is to accompany young people and I needed to do it full time.

Although it’s a bit of a departure from your role at MSG, Precious Dreams makes perfect sense. Your books on therapeutic solutions and psychology training really reinforce the innate love for what you are doing now.

I must say that I have not always fully understood the need for this work and all the challenges young people face during times of transition. I never wanted to create a non-profit association. In fact, I had to learn everything I know to start. It literally started with me googling things and trying to figure out: what are the first steps to start an organization? How to create a business plan and an annual budget? And how do I apply for grants? I had no idea how to do all of this. I didn’t go to school for that. But I just, I felt so much about this job and immediately after seeing the impact that was made at our very first event, I knew I had to put everything I had there -inside. And it works.

Virginia S. Braud