You can tell when you meet them: Fallbrook residents Kim and Joe Russell have big hearts.
Joe is a youth pastor, and together with Kim, he’s busy raising an active and joy-filled family. Yet the birth of their fourth child, Stephen, brought devastating news: something was seriously wrong with their little boy’s heart.
Stephen was born with a rare and complex heart defect that will require at least three open-heart surgeries for him to make it through childhood.
As a father, it was almost unbearable knowing all Stephen would have to endure, without being able to take any of it away from him,” Joe recalls.
Stephen had his first surgery at nine days old. Kim and Joe didn’t want to leave his side, let alone drive an hour home to rest or eat. For nearly a month, the Ronald McDonald House became their “home away from home” with a comfortable bed, a place to shower, and home-cooked meals that helped keep them strong.
Laugh, Smile, and Recharge
When Stephen’s big brother and sisters joined them, the staff welcomed them with gifts and helped put them at ease. The Ronald McDonald House provided a place for their family to be together. They could play with their older kids, laugh, smile, and recharge before returning to the reality that waited in their son’s hospital room.
The Russells returned for Stephen’s second surgery at four months old. They will be back again for at least one more surgery before Stephen turns five. Now two-and-a-half years old, Stephen is a bright-eyed, handsome boy with a smile that lights up a room. This little “heart hero” is one of the strongest kids we know.
A Celebration at “Home”
The Russells came back to celebrate Stephen’s first and second birthdays with us, and they have returned several times to serve meals and bring gifts for current guests.
Everyone went above and beyond to make our family feel supported and loved. —Joe Russell
They want to pass on the feeling of relief and glimpse of hope that they found at the Ronald McDonald House to other families whose children are bravely battling in the hospital.
“This road hasn’t been easy,” says Kim. “But we have witnessed so much beauty come from such pain. Through all of the trials, we have found joy.”
Passing It On
The Russells bring joy with them, and they even inspired a fundraising campaign with their friend, U-T San Diego sports columnist Kevin Acee and San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. See the video below of the campaign launched by Kevin Acee and Philip Rivers in 2014.