HOPE — Dealing with the loss of a beloved relative is difficult for any family.
The Russo family, then of Camden and now of Hope, took the difficult moments of grief and turned them into a way to carry on their loved one’s legacy and instill inspiration through sports to area youth.
In memory of Mikail Robert Russo, the More Opportunities for NEighborhood Youth (MONEY) Athletic Foundation was established by the Russo family.
Mikail, son to Paul and Carolyn and brother to Keagan and Karinna, passed in 2001 at the age of 16.
“Selfishly the foundation was formed because family and friends did not want to let his spirit diminish; altruistically the foundation was formed in order to help young athletes who did not have the means to participate in sporting camps and travel teams,” said Carolyn.
Though Mikail was passionate about sports, music, film and comedy, among other aspects of life, Carolyn said the foundation’s founders felt it was important to limit the group of youth the foundation could financially support. So, the group focused on Mikail’s passion for sports.
“The acronym MONEY not only stands for More Opportunities for NEighborhood Youth, but also was a nickname Mikail earned in his many athletic endeavors,” his mother said.
Born in 1985, Mikail attended Rockport Elementary School, Mary E. Taylor Middle School and Camden Hills Regional High School.
Each calendar year would begin with Mikail spending countless hours playing basketball on several teams and with family and friends.
A strong ball-handler and team player, according to the foundation’s website, he participated in youth basketball leagues from third through eighth grades and on travel teams that played around the state. He was a member of the Mary E. Taylor seventh and eighth grade championship basketball teams and spent his freshman year as a member of the freshman basketball team at Camden Hills.
In the spring, Mikail’s attention turned to the baseball diamond where he thrived as a pitcher and second baseman for the championship little league team for four seasons, making all-star teams each year. He spent three years playing for the school’s middle school baseball team and three years for Camden’s Babe Ruth baseball squad. As a freshman at Camden Hills, he played on the school’s junior varsity team.
Baseball, youth soccer, golf and camps consumed Mikail’s summer vacation from school. From seven-years-old to 14-years-old, he participated in the Camden-Rockport Youth Soccer League, while also participating in weekend games for the United Soccer Federation of Maine.
He annually attended and coached at the Coastal Soccer Camp in Camden and attended local basketball camps and a soccer camp at Colby College.
On the golf course during the summers, he routinely honed his golf skills and quickly established friendships at Goose River Golf Club, where was a member, and Megunticook Golf Club.
“He had a way of starting a round with three complete strangers and coming back to the clubhouse with a new group of friends,” the foundation’s website states.
The occasional whiffleball enthusiast had begun taking tennis lessons in the summer of 2001 and had planned to add that sport to his list of athletic activities.
The fall seasons would be spent playing youth soccer and USFM soccer. In seventh and eighth grades, he played for the middle school teams and enjoyed scoring goals as a striker, wing or halfback. He spent time his freshman season as a member of both the freshman and junior varsity teams, despite his arm in a cast, the result of a fracture sustained during a preseason scrimmage. He spent his final season playing for the high school’s junior varsity team.
Outside of sports, he was an accomplished musician and travel enthusiast. He enjoyed playing the trumpet for the middle school’s concert band and played rhythm guitar and sang for the middle school’s R&B band. At home, he dabbled in playing acoustic and electric guitars. His favorite travel memories included family trips to Washington, D.C., Boston (for Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics games), New York, Japan (on a cultural exchange in eighth grade) and across the New England region (helping his siblings find the right university).
After his passing, the family decided to establish the foundation not only to assist Maine’s athletes, but to also honor Mikail’s everlasting legacy. Mikail was, as the foundation’s website states, a loving son and brother, a loyal friend and dedicated teammate, a person open to and accepting of all people, and one who had a legendary sense of humor.
The foundation’s purpose, Carolyn said, is to provide area youth opportunities through financial assistance they otherwise may not be presented.
“Members of our board believe athletic participation fosters a healthy lifestyle and that setting goals and achieving them opens doors to self-growth and confidence,” she said. “We also believe the lives of the scholarship recipients can be enriched by meeting people of diverse backgrounds and interacting with them in challenging settings. We ask each child, as part of our application process, to tell us the reason he or she should be considered for an award and how the activity will benefit him or her.”
Each year the cost of attending camps, taking lessons or simply participating on local teams grows which, in turn, creates hardships for many area families.
The volunteer-run foundation strives to assist local families overcome, at least partially, the growing expenses for youth sports.
“It is truly an organization motivated by love and memory,” said Carolyn. “It gives us great joy to know that we are helping a child improve his or her physical health and well-being, as well as learning social and community skills that will serve the children for a lifetime.”
More than 750 individuals in Maine have been assisted and more than $177,250 has been disbursed to applicants with the yearly average being approximately $10,000.
“The annual average of donations from individuals and through our fundraising event varies,” Carolyn said. “Presently, we raise less than we give annually, sometimes considerably. Yet, luckily we have had a few years, due to bequeaths and grants, when we raised more than we disbursed. [Those] years are the ones that allow us to continue helping deserving youth.”
Some recipients were teams, but the allocated money primarily went to individuals who needed funds to purchase equipment, attend a camp or participate in a structured, high-level athletic opportunity.
All scholarships go directly to the camps or organizations, Carolyn, the foundation’s treasurer noted.
Scholarship awards generally are capped at $250 to $300 for individuals (a different cap may be placed depending on the number of siblings applying), though the cost of the event is taken into consideration. Teams are generally awarded $500.
The foundation has given scholarships for athletes to participate in a long list of athletic opportunities including soccer, basketball, baseball, softball, field hockey, cross country, track, tennis, gymnastics, rowing, football, ice skating, hockey, wrestling, cheering, and rock climbing.
For the first decade of the foundation’s existence, funds were raised through an annual home run derby and raffle with local middle and high school baseball players selling up to 10 raffle tickets to participate.
Individual and team winners were recognized at each home run derby and a separate derby for other participants. Derby winners were rewarded with gift certificates donated by a multitude of area businesses and community members.
“This event was an enormous success, but as the years went by, the participants became less familiar with Mikail, causing team participation to drop,” said Carolyn. “This led the foundation to consider a fundraising event that would better meet its needs.”
Thus, the creation of the Run for the MONEY 5K, which includes a children’s fun run. Carolyn described the event as an engaging, low-key community event, which has been held on the last Sunday of May, during Memorial Day weekend, at the Lincolnville Central School for the last seven years. The 5K loops back to the school and includes a stretch along Norton Pond.
At various points throughout each year, family and friends donate money, according to Carolyn, and the foundation has received grants over the years from organizations such as the Boston Bruins and Mid-Coast Charities. Occasionally, the foundation receives matched employer contributions from MBNA/Bank of America and UNUM or through bequeaths and in memoriam.
“These amazing people want to honor Mikail’s memory and to help youth in our community and state,” she said. “These annual donors keep the foundation alive.”
In June, the foundation received a $1,000 donation from Gatorade in recognition of Camden Hills Regional High School soccer player Kristina Kelly being named the Maine Gatorade Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
The award, which recognizes not only outstanding athletic excellence, but also high standards of academic achievement and exemplary character demonstrated on and off the field, distinguishes Kelly as Maine’s best high school girls soccer player.
As a part of Gatorade’s cause marketing platform “Play it Forward,” Kelly had the opportunity to award a $1,000 grant to a local or national youth sports organization of her choosing and opted to select the MONEY Foundation.
“This was really special because we have worked with Kris over the years and the fact that she designated our foundation as the recipient of a grant that was tied to her award brings the spirit of what we do full circle,” Paul said.
Kelly, according to a press release from Gatorade, can submit an essay to win one of twelve $10,000 spotlight grants for the organization of choice. Winners will be announced throughout the year, the release noted.
Athletes from all Maine counties can apply for a scholarship through the foundation, though preference is first given to athletes from Knox, Waldo and Cumberland counties.
The foundation, however, has never had to limit scholarships due to geography, Carolyn noted, since the majority of applicants reside in Knox and Waldo Counties.
“Nonetheless, word of mouth often spreads and we feel privileged that we can help the many kids in need who apply,” she said.
For more information, to complete a scholarship application, or to donate, visit moneyathleticfoundation.org.
Reach George Harvey at: firstname.lastname@example.org.