Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce says “No” to new sales tax

Mecklenburg County Chairman Parks Helms speaks to North Mecklenburg citizens in February 2001 at a “Flexliner” Demonstration in Mooresville.  Photo courtesy Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.

Every day, I speak with business owners struggling to make payroll. Families who have endured hardships this past year unparalleled in our lifetime, and while there is a glimmer of sunshine peaking through the dark clouds which enveloped our nation almost a year ago, we still have a way to go before we get back to the economic prosperity we enjoyed this time last year. Yet, even as we rebuild and emerge from the darkness of the pandemic, there are those in city leadership who would raise taxes on our goods and service, add to the existing challenges of business owners, and increase the cost to consumers.  As ridiculous as it sounds, there are actual discussions taking place in Charlotte about whether they can get North Mecklenburg voters on board for a sales tax increase for transit.

A far flung idea?  Not really, North Meck voters have had a history of supporting transit. In 1998, the N.C. General Assembly passed legislation which allowed Mecklenburg County to enact a local sales tax dedicated to public transit after a public vote. Mecklenburg County residents reaffirmed their desire to improve public transit options once again in 2007 by approving this dedicated tax by an overwhelming 70% vote. The north Mecklenburg communities of Cornelius, Davidson, and Huntersville voted for this tax primarily based on the promise of commuter rail arriving from Charlotte.

The Lake Norman Chamber represented over 1,000 active business members, and loudly advocated in favor of this dedicated sales tax for public transit because of what commuter rail and expanded bus service could mean to commerce and economic growth for the Lake Norman region.

In 2001, several local Lake Norman area business and community leaders were taken on a highly publicized “Flexliner” transit ride on the old Norfolk Southern rail line from Charlotte to Mooresville. It demonstrated the promise of how commuter rail could positively impact the north market. 


It was that promise of opportunity and the vision of greatly expanded transit options from Charlotte to North Mecklenburg that persuaded our residents to vote in favor of the transit tax referendum in 2007. But history proved those visions to be mere illusions and false hope, as public transit and rail lines were improved everywhere except in North Mecklenburg. The Airport area, the University region and the residents of South Charlotte all saw change and growth. North Mecklenburg was left with no improvements other than more options for the already underutilized buses from the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS). Instead of getting new rail lines from Charlotte to Lake Norman as promised to gather our support, voters from North Mecklenburg received little more than a lesson in “bait and switch” politics. 

Almost a decade later, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and I-77 Mobility Partners, a limited liability corporation created by Cintra, signed a comprehensive agreement for the delivery of I-77 toll lanes. In response, Lake Norman residents voted overwhelmingly to cast out elected officials, both local and statewide, who pushed I-77 toll roads down the throats of our citizens, instead of meeting our actual needs and creating expanded general-purpose lanes which were introduced in other areas of the Charlotte region instead.

Now, in 2021, during the greatest economic and healthcare crisis of our lifetime, Charlotte City leaders are once again considering the expansion of light rail which could cost between $8 and $12 billion. According to Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, “You are talking about $150 per person a year or $600 a year for a family of four for something those of us in North Mecklenburg will receive no benefit from.”

On Monday, January 25th, the Board of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, representing the voice of business in the Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, and the greater Lake Norman region unanimously, voted to oppose ANY further increase in sales tax, for ANY purpose, during this adverse economic climate.

With so many businesses, families, and organizations struggling to just meet the bare minimum costs of living and operating expenses, it is clearly the wrong time to even consider such a measure. More to the point, when it comes to whether or not North Mecklenburg voters will vote to fund another Charlotte Transit Tax……well, that train has already left the station.

W.E. “Bill” Russell, CCE, IOM
President & CEO
Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce

Staying Afloat

The following column from Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Bill Russell salutes the patience, perseverance, and promise of our regional business community as we face the pandemic of 2020.

Staying Afloat

Last month, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon cutting ceremony opening the newly renovated Lake Norman YMCA. That day, as leaders of the YMCA talked about the hardship and challenges of a capital campaign during the wake of COVID-19, the most devastating physical and economic threat of our generation, each person referenced the hard work and commitment of volunteers, donors and staff.

In my comments to those who gathered to celebrate the accomplishment, I shared how the local YMCA was essentially my second home during the summers when I was a young boy. Even today, I vividly recall the pickup basketball games, practicing my hoops, and the hot summer days out by the pool.  Looking back, it is hard to believe I did that each day, Monday thru Friday, 9 to 5 until my dad picked me up after work.

Today, the debate rages about whether our schools will have virtual or in class learning.  Governor Cooper has ordered a new restrictive stay at home order going into effect this Friday for the hours of 10 pm until 5 am, which will largely impact our hospitality businesses. While I am most concerned about the impact this virus has had on the health of our families and friends, I also am reminded daily about the economic toll it has had on business and commerce. 

Perhaps no market segment has been hit harder than our hospitality, tourism, and fitness industries. When many could have just folded up – I am aware how our Lake Norman businesses stepped up to the plate. I was impressed last May as Vinay Patel from SREE Hospitality talked about how his hotels worked to keep his employees on board in the face of a dramatic downturn in occupancy.  Chef Wes Choplin with Choplin’s Restaurant created meals for kids in need of a hot lunch.  While his business and other local restaurants suffered under the pandemic, he took care of 700 area children each week. Simply spectacular!

Our Lake Norman YMCA had planned a massive capital campaign and major renovation to begin February 1, just weeks before we realized the devastation of this virus. The leadership of the YMCA rolled the dice, took a risk, and plunged head on into the renovations gambling that the facility would be ready for the start of camps this past summer. The generosity of Lake Norman residents and stakeholders was amazing as the YMCA raised $2 million dollars over the course of three years. Even more amazing was the fact they also served 437 campers this summer – all with appropriate COVID 19 guidelines being met from June 15 to August 14th.

While COVID is seeing spikes statewide, relief is just around the corner as vaccines have now been approved and front-line healthcare workers and the elderly may see distribution within the next week as Operation Warp Speed begins implementation. COVID 19 has been an insidious threat to our nation but it has brought out the best in our people – working together to help each other stay afloat during a rough and turbulent storm.  We have stared down a disease which knows no partisanship, religion, or race.

But one, which at the end of the day, will be beaten back.  The storm has not yet passed but the ravaging winds are subsiding and just over the horizon the sun waits to kiss the gentle waters and make calm the new day. I can see that day.  It’s just ahead.

Wishing health and happiness to you all.

Bill Russell

A Lesson I Learned from Coach – Ray Parlier

The below article was written for the August issue of FLAME.

I am not sure there is a single principle more important than simply loving your people. I’ve always enjoyed reading books by John C. Maxwell, and in one of his books he had a statement from President Theodore Roosevelt, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Ray Parlier
Pictured Ray Parlier (Center), former Athletic Director of Furman University with Bill Russell (Left) and Robby Dawkins (Right) who both led the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce as National Presidents. Parlier, who died in 2017, left a Legacy of Leadership on thousands of young people as a Coach and Mentor.

In 1985, I met a man named Ray Parlier. Ray and I were very involved in the South Carolina Junior Chamber (Jaycees) and later he would lead the state organization as President. He also became one of my political advisors when I was National President of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce.

While Ray was extremely successful in the Jaycees, his real impact was shaping the lives of kids at Furman University where he served as Athletic Director during the time when it claimed its only National Football Championship. Ray’s influence on me was profound, but his greatest lesson was to love your people. If you demonstrate how much you care about the people you lead, they will follow you anywhere. People always came first with Coach Parlier and he was a master at making you feel special.

He called until it was too late to talk on the phone. Then he would switch to addressing postcard after postcard thanking folks for the smallest things. Ray was a fierce competitor and he believed everyone had a place on the team. The quarterback who made the perfect fade pass was important but so was the trainer who conditioned the players. Ray gave out more plaques and incentives than anyone I ever met and sometimes it was the smallest tokens that people desired the most. It was not the size of the reward but the appreciation for the job well done. I am not sure I ever saw as many grown men hug each other as they did under the leadership of Coach. He made you feel good about yourself and your effort.

Someone recently asked me to what I attributed the success of the Lake Norman Chamber I lead here at Lake Norman. Location is a critical factor for any business, but it really benefits those who make their home at the lake.  We have businesses that work their plan, take advantage of our networking events, and our outstanding personal growth and business programming. However, the thing that sets our chamber apart, which enables us to be the “Best of the Best”, is our appreciation of each other. You must show folks how much you care. It is the foundation of leadership.

I still remember a Saturday morning in Charleston, S.C. when I had just been elected President of the South Carolina Jaycees. Coach Ray Parlier put his arm around me and hugged me tight. He then looked deep in my eyes, with a wide smile across his face and reminded me, “Bill, love your people and they’ll love you back.”

As I look back on a life that has spanned six decades now, that may well have been the single best advice I ever received.

Bill Russell

 

 

 

A Fighting Chance

Scarlett
Scarlett and Mike LaPierre.

Last month, business, community, and elected leaders gathered along with health care officials at the opening of Atrium Health Levine Children’s Pediatric Emergency Room at Lake Norman. The new facility located at exit 25 in Huntersville is a 24/7 emergency room specifically trained in caring for children.

The highlight of the morning was hearing from the parent of a young baby who was evidence of a death-defying miracle – Scarlett LaPierre. Mike LaPierre, the general manager of Skybrook Golf Club in Huntersville, shared how Scarlett was delivered by a C-section at 26 weeks, weighing less than a pound and a half. Two weeks after her premature birth, Scarlett developed a massive clot inside her heart.

Fortunately, the doctors at Levine Children’s Hospital had advanced knowledge of a treatment that few babies in the world had ever been exposed. A new drug had recently been developed called “TPA” which busted the clot but not without concerns of side effects which threatened her life.

The parents Mike and Tracey LaPierre had been prepared to say goodbye to their precious little girl named after Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone with the Wind”. Much like the character for whom she was named, little Scarlett was a fighter and survived the ordeal.

Mike LaPierre credited the team at Levine for both finding and treating the clot. There had only been 10 similar documented cases published worldwide, so the odds had been heavily stacked against her. Had it not been for the outstanding physicians and resources of Levine, little Scarlett would have been another statistic.  Instead, she is a miracle growing healthier each day.

Listening to Scarlett’s story, I thought about a visit I took to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Medical University at South Carolina in 1993.  I had recently been asked to take part in the Blue-Ribbon Commission Partnership with the March of Dimes.  The commission was an effort by the healthcare advocate to engage national civic organizations in their fight against birth defects.

I was 34 at the time and chairman of the board of the largest young people’s service organization in the country – the United States Junior Chamber. We toured several wings of the hospital before one of the physicians took me down a darkened corridor. There to the right and left were rows and rows of incubators with little premature babies who could have easily fit in the palm of your hand. I was told many of these babies were “crack babies” born to mothers addicted to cocaine. Others were the result of alcohol, heroin or other narcotics.

I stood at the glass and looked down at one of the babies. Bright pink, this little “preemie’s” eyes were closed tightly as they fought for each labored breath. I remember asking naively about the parents as the female physician looked at me, paused, and carefully chose her words which have haunted me since.

“In most cases these little babies are born to young mothers exposed to drugs such as barbiturates or heroin,” she replied. I asked what would become of them? The young physician looked away and then turned to me and replied, “Most will not likely survive the week. Those that do, may have cognitive or developmental issues.”

I didn’t dare ask another question. Instead, l looked back down, focusing on the little baby whose chest rose slowly up and down. His fingers were clenched tightly and every soften, seemed to take a wild swing through the air.

Today, we are so fortunate to have a facility like Levine Children’s hospital here at the lake. As a community, we are blessed to have outstanding providers like Atrium, Novant, and Lake Norman Regional Medical to take care of our employees, families, and children.

Listening to Mike Lapierre who held baby Scarlett tight in his arms, I couldn’t help but think of that young “preemie” almost three decades ago.

No child should be left alone in the darkness of that room, with no one to love and no one to love them back. It is important we educate young expectant mothers on lifestyle decisions and as importantly, we as a community need to invest in our healthcare, making sure each child has that fighting chance. It’s a fight we can win together and a fight we dare not lose.

Bill Russell

The Business of Politics

Russell thoughts 1
W.E. “Bill” Russell, CCE, IOM

This month marks my 25th year with the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce….a milestone from which to reflect on the past, but also look toward the future. Going through my files the other day, I found some letters we wrote to then N.C. Senator Fountain Odom in Raleigh years ago.
Most Chamber members join our association because of the many networking opportunities or for the chance to improve their marketing, management, or sales skills through our many seminars and programs. But a very important role the Lake Norman Chamber plays is being the voice of local businesses whether that’s at Town Hall, in Raleigh, or in the Halls of Congress.

In 1996, a group of our chamber members went to Raleigh to meet with Senator Odom regarding legislation he had sponsored. His bill would change the way our towns and cities annex. Our North Mecklenburg towns were opposed to the bill. While that may not sound like a business issue, the growth of our towns is very important to the overall vitality and health of our region. The chamber played, and still maintains, a key role in the economic well-being of the Lake Norman region.

It was my first trip to Raleigh and after a short wait we were escorted in to see the Senator. There was some small talk before we got down to the real reason we were there.  Senator Odom saw me looking at the beautiful ornate humidor sitting on his desk. He interrupted the Chamber Board Chair, Scott Lawrence, then opened the box and asked if we smoked. Indicating that we did smoke cigars on occasion, the Senator offered each of us a cigar, and took one for himself. He then leaned back in his chair, clipped the end of the cigar, and lit it up to my astonishment.

“Are you going to smoke that in here sir?” I asked, rather aghast. Senator Odom replied, “Son, this is Raleigh and North Carolina was built on tobacco.”

Senator Odom then asked if we were aware he had sponsored the Bill in question. “Yes sir,” I replied.  Odom took a few puffs on his cigar and with a glint in his eye said, “Boys, don’t worry.  That bill has been sent down to the rules committee where it will stay parked till we adjourn.” His language was clear – the bill would die in committee. Senator Odom sponsored legislation that pleased one group of supporters and had his own Bill sent to die in committee to take care of the other side.  In the end, nothing happened.

As we were walking back down the hallway, Charles Knox, our Chamber’s public policy chair at the time, looked at me and said, “Welcome to Raleigh.”

Over the course of the last 25 years, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce has become very effective in advocating for our members. I could cite hundreds of cases where our chamber’s voice helped this region….whether it was assisting local businesses with zoning issues, overturning the county’s faulty property tax reval a few years ago, or bringing new health care facilities our classrooms our way. Statehouse Rediced

We successfully lobbied for new schools and expanded roads and stood up to Bond Packages which did not support our community. The Lake Norman Chamber led an effort to get a multi-jurisdictional transportation access management study when that type of study had never been commissioned before. We were able to get road improvements that had been denied to one of our towns by NC DOT.

But it’s the lesson I learned early from a freshman NC House Member I will always cherish the most.

On another visit to Raleigh, Representative Drew Saunders told us the greatest lesson he had ever learned was, “Never burn a bridge – whether that’s in business or politics! The person on the other side of the issue today could be one of your biggest allies’ tomorrow.”

In some respect Raleigh, much like Lake Norman has changed quite a bit in 25 years. Tobacco may have built North Carolina but it’s been replaced by finance and technology. But some of the games played decades ago are still going on, and not just in our state capital, but in Washington DC as well.

As we cross the bridge into our next decade, I am quite confident of one thing though – working hard, working smart and working together there is nothing that we cannot accomplish. Happy 2020!

Bill Russell

My Guiding Light – Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!

ChristmasThe Christmas season has always been my favorite part of the year. I cherish time spent with close friends and family and love all of the festivities and holiday decor that it brings. For many of us, this is the time to pause our hectic schedules and remember the true meaning of Christmas, and also reflect upon the past as we look to the future.

The past 11 months have been very challenging for me. I lost my father very suddenly in January. Dad wasn’t just a parent. He was my guiding star, my mentor, my confidant and the person I have strived most to emulate in my professional and civic career. Certainly, my Mom played a critical role in my life raising my brother, sister and me. She purchased most of our clothes if she didn’t make them herself. Then she stitched them back together when we wore them out.

Mom nursed us when we were sick, comforted us when we were in distress, and loved on us even when we were bad. (Okay, mostly it was me who was bad!) And while I love my Mom to the moon and back, I was always a daddy’s boy. I admired how involved he was in our community. As a kid, I was so proud watching him play ball, stand up and give a talk in front of the church, and when called upon – serve as the president or chairman of so many different local civic groups.

Later in life, when I led some of the same organizations that my Father guided in prior years, he counseled me. Perhaps his greatest advice when I was faced with several controversial decisions was, “Do the right thing no matter how unpopular it may be. Don’t make a decision in the moment because you’re going to remember it for a lifetime.” He also shared, “We do not choose when we set an example!”

Dad was never an executive with a chamber of commerce, though he was involved with the Rock Hill Chamber. But he recognized how much I enjoyed civic service and encouraged me to pursue a career in association management. This year marks 27 years at the helm of a chamber of commerce helping businesses grow and prosper while making it a great community to live, work, and play.

The hardest thing this year has been going through the boxes and boxes of personal papers, mementos, pictures, and notes at our family farm. I thought I was a pack rat until I started going through Dad’s closets and storage areas and emptying the attic at his home. Among the many letters and papers I found was a copy of a note he wrote to my brother’s daughter who was joining the church. In the letter he cited two guiding principles he relied on. One was a scripture verse from the New Testament, Matthew 5 Chapter 16; “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”Tree 3

The other was a line from the Jaycee Creed: “Service to humanity is the best work of life.” As I continued to read the letter, tears welled up in my eyes as I could hear his voice. The cadence of his words spoke boldly of his thoughts. The thoughts speaking to intention, and the intentions which were louder than the words. As I set the box of letters aside, I thought about how Dad’s life was a candle which burned brightly against the darkness. Before his flame flickered out too soon at the age of 81, he completed a lifetime of work, and left his community much better than he found it.

It was late as I finished for the night. I walked outside on the back deck and looked up at the twinkling stars.  The moon was full, and I peered across the pasture to the old ragged barn silhouetted against the horizon.

I couldn’t help but think in this Christmas Season what those travelers from the East thought two thousand years ago as they followed their star. Those three wise men who left behind their life and followed the light. The journey they made and the legacy we remember.

As I stood in the crisp country air, I heard the sound of a young calf piercing the darkness and felt a warm rush against the nighttime chill. It was as if my Grandmother was throwing a shawl around my shoulder to keep me warm….as she had many times when I was a child. In that moment, I could feel the love that surrounded me and the lessons that Dad left. Among them,  “It’s not just about the destination we seek but the journey along the way … and the many lives we touch getting there.”

In this holiest of seasons, I wish each and every one of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Bill Russell

A Promise to Keep

Bill on Dynamite
Bill Jr. on Dynamite with William E Russell Sr. – 1966

When I was just a young boy, I would ride my little pony from my Grandparent’s house to my Great-Grandfather’s home. The small white house sat perched high on a hill overlooking the lush pastureland where cattle grazed lazily on those warm summer days.

Great-Granddaddy Adkins would always give me with one piece of “Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum” for the pony ride over to see him. It hardly seems now that such a small token was incentive enough for a little boy, but at the time, it was a coveted treasure and well worth the ride. When he passed away in 1966, the old home which had served our family so well, stood vacant, a silent sentinel guarding the memories of lives lived well.

I found out some time later that the old farm house, which initially had been a log cabin held together by timber and mud, had gone back many generations. It had been deeded to my ancestors during the time of King George of England.

Unfortunately, after Granddaddy Adkin’s death, the proud old manor fell into disrepair and eventually time and mother nature took their toll. The roof sagged, its once sturdy walls collapsed, and a few decades ago it was torn down before the cattle, or worse, a family member or hunter, was hurt venturing into the failing structure.  A house which welcomed back Revolutionary and Civil War Veterans, providing a warm shelter and home for my family for generations, lost its battle against time.

Many Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce Members may not know of the Chamber’s commitment to our historical and cultural past. In 1997, I was contacted by Reverend Jeff Lowrance about joining the Board of The Hugh Torance House and Store in Huntersville.  Rev. Lowrance knew of my passion for history and the store is the oldest standing attraction of such designation in North Carolina.  It also has special interest to me, given its historical place in regional commerce and trade in Mecklenburg County, and specifically Lake Norman.

I have served as President and chaired the Hugh Torance Board since 2007 and all 23 of the Chamber’s Leadership Lake Norman classes have toured the local treasure as has our Junior Leadership program. In addition, the Chamber’s Young Professionals organization recently conducted a very successful fundraiser for the repairs of the House & Store. The Huntersville Town Board has also generously supported efforts to preserve this precious piece of our history and a Grant submission is being reviewed by Lowes Company.

Leader resized
Bill Russell leads a tour of the Hugh Torance House and Store to Leadership Lake Norman participants.

Mark Twain once said, “We can’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been!” While our Chamber is not only committed to the economic well being of our community and region – we will continue to work to enhance our quality of life and protect the cultural and historical past which has made the Lake Norman region a great place to live, work, and visit!

I have watched a piece of my own family history return to the dust from which it came.  It is important that we do not let a true community treasure like the Hugh Torance House & Store meet the same fate. If we do not owe it to the people who settled here, then it is certainly a responsibility we have to the generation who will inherit our community and region next. A debt to our past and a promise to keep for our future!

Bill Russell

Lessons from a lemonade stand

GardenPerhaps my favorite summer activity is gardening. I really enjoy going down to our farm in Rock Hill and working the ground that my dad, grandfather, and great-grandfathers toiled.  Perhaps the best thing about the garden is that the investment in labor always yields a bountiful harvest of fresh vegetables that keep my family and friends very happy.

A few summers ago, I drove through the back roads to the farm and passed by a little lemonade stand by the side of the road.  A little girl sat at a folding table and chair with a handwritten sign that said, “Fresh Lemonade.”  There was also what appeared to be a glass pitcher and a few Dixie cups stacked as she waited patiently for a thirsty customer who would certainly come along.

I did not have time to stop then, but made a mental note to drop by for a cool drink after working in the garden in the hot afternoon sun.  After spending a few hours tilling the soil and tying up the tomatoes, I packed up and headed home.  The little girl was still in her chair, head resting on her left hand, as she slumped down on the table.

I pulled my car over and walked over to her stand.  She jumped up and beamed a big smile as I asked her for a cup of her cold lemonade.  To be truthful, the lemonade was a little warm as the afternoon sun had taken a toll on the ice.  However, after a long day in the garden, the beverage was tasty and really hit the spot.  She charged me a whopping 25 cents.

After downing the delectable treat, I asked if I could have a refill.  She indicated that would require another quarter.  She carefully poured a second beverage, handed me my drink, and held out her hand for payment.  I pulled out a $5 bill and her eyes widened and mouth dropped in awe. The little girl timidly said, “Sir, I do not have enough change.”  I told her that was okay, she could keep the change as a tip.  As I drove away, I watched in the rear view mirror as she dashed back to her house waving the money.  Based on her excitement, I am guessing that she made more in one visit with me than she did all day.

The little girl’s location was not ideal – located on a lonely country back road where you’re more likely to see a stray dog wander by before the occasional car.  She clearly wasn’t prepared for any large transactions but I really admired the fact she stuck it out through the hot summer heat.lemonade-stand

That lemonade stand was similar to many businesses that are located in low traffic areas or operate without a solid business or marketing plan. The Lake Norman Chamber helps in those situations. We provide businesses with numerous opportunities to build new relationships through our many networking opportunities. Our chamber also gives business owners and managers’ new tools and knowledge needed for success, including presentations in financial planning, sales training, marketing, risk management, HR issues and other personal and business topics.

Unlike a lemonade stand, our lake businesses cannot afford to make critical errors in planning, financing, and marketing their business.  Our businesses are like a garden which requires constant attention. You do not just plant a seed – you have to constantly provide care.  Tilling, hoeing out the rows, fertilizing the ground, and supplying it with plenty of water.  However, if you put in the effort and investment in the business, the time spent building new relationships and cultivating existing ones, will yield a bountiful harvest and a successful business.

I’m not sure how much lemonade that little girl sold that afternoon but just thinking about her brings a big smile to my face. I hope she’s back there again this summer. A fresh pitcher of cool lemonade and perhaps this time a cookie or two.

Bill Russell

My Wish This Holiday Season

billThe holiday season is upon us and with it comes the sights and sounds of Christmas. Regardless of your faith, December is often a special month of reflection, generosity, and family.  Listening to my favorite carols and songs brings back long cherished memories of family and friends. For many, it’s a spiritual season with thoughts of life’s purpose. But others face much darker days with the struggle of addiction. Providing them and their families, relief from the pain would be the greatest gift of all.

Last week, I attended my weekly Rotary Club meeting and listened as a young lady shared her story of addiction to opioids. The daughter of a Rotarian, she fought through tears as she shared her innermost struggle with substance abuse. She was an honor student, gifted athlete, and popular classmate. Yet, she still felt a lack of esteem and confidence, which led to handfuls of pills that wrecked her life, leaving a wide wake of personal destruction with family and close friends.

I squirmed in my seat as I listened to her recount how her parents tried desperately to reach out with counseling and assistance. But in the end, they were forced to lock her out of their house. It was a story I was all too familiar with as my stepbrother faced the same insidious demons.

The opioid epidemic is now considered the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history. These drugs kill more Americans than automobile accidents and opioids now claim more than 27,000 lives each year. Addiction knows no discrimination as every demographic segment has seen a dramatic rise in deaths from overdoses of prescription opioids and heroin.

In 2014, friends from my High School lost their son to his struggle with substance abuse. Their family was close and Hendon was a popular and gifted young man and a talented athlete. Their son was one of the most likeable young men you would ever meet.  But again, addiction does not discriminate – and another life ended entirely too soon – and another family faced unimaginable heartache.

Earlier this year, I attended the funeral of a very successful young chamber member. She was the mother of two little girls. Bethany lost a battle that far too many wage. Her family and her faith simply could not compete with the pull of addiction – the momentary high that robs from the future.opioid

The young lady at Rotary ended by telling us how each day is a struggle, but she is winning that battle one day at a time. It takes courage, time and tons of support. Ultimately, the answer must begin with an acknowledgement that there is a problem and there must be resolve to overcome it.

If I could have one gift this Christmas, it would be for our nation to put aside all the petty political bickering and focus on the real threats which face our great country, robbing each of us of our greatest living treasure – the sons and daughters of America.

Country Singer Vince Gill sings a song called, “Go Rest High on that Mountain.” In the song, Gill sings, “…only you could know the pain. You weren’t afraid to face the devil, you were no stranger to the rain.”

Let us hope as we face this year ahead, we do so resolved to ending the addiction crisis threatening our young people. United in a common cause to bring awareness to the issue and compassion to the cause. While we may not win every battle, no one should ever have to face the devil alone.

Happy Holidays and God Bless!

Bill Russell

 

The above column first appeared in the last issue of The Lake Norman Citizen Newspaper – Final Thoughts – November 29, 2017.

A Lasting Lesson From A Moment In Time

As summer vacations begin to wind down, many of us are refocusing on local businesses, seeking to learn new techniques to attract customers and create new revenue. Learning comes in many forms – seminars, forums, and continuing education. Sometimes though, the most lasting lessons come from the briefest encounters.

Aktion
Aktion Club of Lake Norman

For more than a decade, I have served as the advisor to a group of special needs adults called the Kiwanis Aktion Club. These young adults meet each month at the Lake Norman Chamber to socialize, conduct community projects, and participate in programs to enrich their lives.

Recently, a friend asked if I had a personal connection to this group. Perhaps a family member with special needs or a friend with a disability? As I started to reply, I had to suppress the tears. Yes, there was a story. There’s always a story.

In 1983, I joined a local community service group called the Jaycees and jumped head first into nearly every local project. Then one day, the Chapter President asked for volunteers to participate in Camp Hope Sunday. The statewide charity was a summer camp for children with disabilities. Each year the Jaycees would dedicate one Sunday to drive to this special camp and spend an afternoon with the young campers. The volunteers would take a picnic lunch, usually stopping at KFC just outside of the camp, and spend time with the campers.  After lunch, the kids would sing a few songs for their hosts.

The first few times I was asked to join in, I always found an excuse why I couldn’t attend, but in 1986 I was president of our Jaycee Chapter and felt that I had to go. Once there, I was assigned a little boy. Thirty one years later I still remember his name … Jason. Jason was just like any other ten year old child except he was considered special.  Jason had Down Syndrome.

Shortly after we arrived, we sat down for our picnic. The room was loud with laughter and chatter and Jason hardly took a breath between bites as he filled me in everything that came to his mind. When he reached over and started picking up food off of my plate, I was slightly taken aback.  But Jason just laughed as if he had told the biggest joke of all.

Several minutes later Jason joined a group of kids to sing a few songs. Picture twelve children, all singing the same song, but each and every one in a different harmony and pitch. I caught Jason looking directly at me, eyes locked on mine, and he was smiling from ear to ear. After the last song, he ran back to our table, anxiously asking could I hear him?  “Absolutely,” I replied. I’m quite sure he was the loudest child on stage!  As our group gathered to depart, I’ll never forget that moment when this young boy who I met just hours before, wrapped his little arms tightly around my waist, and said “I love you Mr. Bill.”Aktion 2

We drove three hours back to Rock Hill and although others in the car were carrying on conversations, my thoughts were still on Jason and the other campers. That’s the day, the very moment, I realized Jason didn’t have a special need – I did. But not anymore. I truly believe God gave me that moment with Jason for a reason.

When my friend asked me recently did I have a special needs child of my own? I said yes. I have a couple of dozen of them actually. We meet every month at the Chamber. We call ourselves the Aktion Club.

Some Aktion Club members are in their 20’s, some in their 30’s and they may not be kids – but in a very special way, they’re my kids. When they have every reason in the world to rail against their own particular challenges – they laugh, love, learn, and serve.

Jason touched me in way that I have never forgotten. This ten year old child with Downs taught me I didn’t need to be afraid. He had enough love for us both as he wrapped his arms tightly around me as my body literally shook.  Three decades later I remember that simple hug. It was the afternoon I found God’s Grace in the heart of a child.

Bill Russell

The above article was written for The Lake Norman Citizen Newspaper – July 26, 2017.