All his life, Brandon Russell dreamed of being a teacher, and when he tragically passed away at the age of 27, Brandon had already turned his dream into reality. For more than two years, he taught at an elementary school in Vermont, and he described his class and the school as a perfect fit to a family friend just over a week before his death. Remembered as someone who dedicated his life to teaching children and cared deeply for everyone around him, it’s only fitting that Brandon, who passed away in 2014 from a pulmonary embolism, continues to impact the lives of young students to this very day. Only now, the students he’s impacting live in Haiti.
“When he died, we thought that we might set up a scholarship that people could donate to,” explains Tammy Dwyer, Brandon’s mother. “One of Bran’s mottos was ‘go big or go home.’ He was quoted often saying that. And I just remember thinking that a scholarship wasn’t big enough. It had to be something that would have some kind of sustainable change. So I started doing tons and tons of research.”
Above: Brandon Russell, known as Bran to his closest friends and family, dreamed of being a teacher all his life. “From the first minute that that kid was able to have conscious thought, that’s what he wanted to do. It was a struggle getting there, but he just never stopped,” says Brandon’s stepfather Tad. “He realized his dream before he died.”
It was through her research that Tammy found buildOn, and she realized that building a school in honor of Brandon’s life was the kind of sustainable change that she was looking for. “It was perfect because Bran did a lot of volunteer work around women’s issues, and one of the components of buildOn schools is that girls attend in equal numbers as boys. That value system, it really matched Bran’s,” Tammy says.
“…this was a way to allow his dream of educating kids to go on.”
“Tammy chose to build the school in Haiti because Bran did some service work in Haiti,” says Tad Dwyer, Brandon’s stepfather. “And this was a way to allow his dream of educating kids to go on.”
Standing six-foot-three, Brandon had a larger-than-life personality and was best known for his big smile and warm nature. “Brandon was just the most smiling, happy kid that you could ever know,” Tad says. “He was so intelligent and so patient, and so made for the profession that he chose that it permeated every part of his life. He wasn’t an excluder. He was the ultimate includer.”
Above: Brandon traveled to Haiti on a service trip in 2008 while in college at Keene State.
“I think the thing that I admire maybe the most about Bran is he was all in, all the time,” Tammy says. “If he was helping somebody do something, you got 100 percent of his effort, 100 percent of his commitment, 100 percent of his enthusiasm, and 100 percent of his attention. And I just don’t know that many people who operate at that kind of generous level all the time.”
“I think the thing that I admire maybe the most about Bran is he was all in, all the time.”
Because of the person he was, Brandon touched an incredible amount of people throughout his life, and when it came time to fundraise for building the school, it was a true community effort made possible by Brandon’s students, friends, former teachers, and family members. Brandon’s students raised money through car washes and bake sales. One of his students even went as far as to stack wood for an elderly neighbor, and when she asked if she could pay him for his work, he directed her to the fundraising website. Some of Brandon’s best friends from college organized a wiffle ball tournament and donated the proceeds. Tammy and Tad raised money through a raffle that included donated tickets to a New England Patriots game. And countless other students, former teachers, coworkers, and friends raised funds on their own to contribute to the school. In the end, there were more than 300 contributions.
Above: A plaque outside the finished school in Lahatte/Aquin, Haiti, reads: “This school is dedicated to Brandon Russell so that his work will live on.” (Photo by Tara Rice)
And just as raising the funds to build the school was a community effort, so was the actual school construction. U.S. buildOn students from Chicago traveled to the village of Lahatte/Aquin in Haiti to work side-by-side with local community members on the construction of the new school on Trek. For the Chicago students, who had already dedicated themselves to serving their own communities and neighborhoods in the U.S., building a school in Lahatte/Aquin was life changing.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I loved all of it,” says Jamia Lawrence, a buildOn student from Gage Park High School in Chicago. “It was very meaningful. I see that a lot of kids in Chicago and the United States take school for granted. But in Haiti those kids were so excited and happy and filled with joy when we came to help their community build the school. It made me realized that it’s a privilege for me to have the school that I have. A lot of people don’t have that.”
Above: Two young students in Lahatte/Aquin, Haiti, pose for a picture. The new school replaces five temporary structures that were being used as classrooms even though they were unsuitable for proper learning. (Photo by Tara Rice)
Since returning home from Trek, Jamia has started getting better grades in school. “I used to get bad grades in classes. But after Haiti, I realized that I could get A’s if I put in the work,“ Jamia says. “To everyone who helped raise funds for the school, I want to say thank you. It’s just an amazing and heartfelt thing to do.”
“To everyone who helped raise funds for the school,I want to say thank you. It’s just an amazing and heartfelt thing to do.”
After the students left the community, the construction of the school became complicated and delayed. But ultimately, the community in Lahatte/Aquin pulled together and persevered to finish the construction of the school on April 10th, 2018. Now, nearly 200 students are in attendance every day.
Above: Students learn in their new school in Lahatte/Aquin. The new school was made possible by Brandon’s legacy, the hard work of his parents Tammy and Tad, and the efforts of Brandon’s students, family members, and friends back home in the U.S. (Photo by Tara Rice)
“Bran had his struggles in his life. And getting his teaching degree did not come easy. It’s fitting since Bran had to struggle to realize his dream that the school would have its challenges as well,” Tammy says.
For Tammy and Tad, there’s great meaning in thinking of the completed school and the impact it is having in Haiti. “I have so many feelings. There’s levels of feelings. Bran believed so much in education as a way to lift people up out of poverty, out of whatever the circumstance,” Tammy says. “So I think he would just be so happy that the work didn’t end when he died. And I feel like with buildOn’s help we did good. I feel like as a parent I’ve honored him well.”
“…now there’s this connection for us, and kids are going to school and learning things that wouldn’t have been possible, but for Bran.”
“I think he’d be really proud of what we did, and how we did it,” Tad says. “It’s one of the things that really is hard to explain. But now, daily, I’ll think about these kids going to the school. I wonder what they’re learning, I wonder what they’re doing. And it’s a thing that’s added a calm to us to know that there are other human beings that we’ll probably never meet, but that our kid touched in a way that we never could have imagined. And certainly we wouldn’t have wanted to have it planned that way. But now there’s this connection for us, and kids are going to school and learning things that wouldn’t have been possible, but for Bran.”
Below: Students stand in front of their new school in Lahatte/Aquin. Nearly 200 students from the Lahatte/Aquin community now attend their new school. (Photo by Tara Rice)