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Vivian Baleos Russell took a pledge. It doesn’t matter that it was half a world away some 24 years ago.

She was valedictorian at Santa Rosa Elementary School, a grade school in the Philippine town of Balangiga, and she swore to uphold the school’s good name, promote the institution’s welfare and help it grow for the good of the entire nation. “That’s pretty much my inspiration for all the projects that I want to do over there,” Russell said.

She started fulfilling the pledge years ago by walking instead of taking the bus from college to her apartment and saving enough money to buy sweets for the school children. She helped build a playground there, and rehabilitate a steep set of concrete stairs that students used to navigate the hilly campus.

And while she and her husband, Bruce Russell, now live in Great Mills, they have continued their support abroad by raising money to serve hot lunches to hundreds of children in that village.

Today, Russell says that pledge has taken on new meaning. Typhoon Haiyan devastated Balangiga last month, sending families rushing from their storm-ravaged homes to the makeshift shelter of Santa Rosa school. Through winds of about 200 miles per hour, they huddled inside classrooms and braced against walls and tables as Mother Nature snatched the roofs from above their heads, shattered windows at their sides and threw everything in the rooms all around them.

The Russells told their story at Yellow Door Art Studios in Leonardtown last Friday night, where owner Carrie Patterson hosted an event to help raise funds to rebuild the school. A percentage of art sales that night went toward Russell’s effort.

“There’s no better feeling than giving back and forming a greater community,” said artist Shannon Rafferty, whose work was among the items sold to benefit the project.

“I just want to raise as much as we can,” Russell said. She’s not sure how much it will cost to rehabilitate the school. “But every school building is devastated.” Her hope is to get children back to school with supplies, build a temporary building for classes and restore a bit of normalcy to their lives. All the uniforms the students had also are gone, she said. “We are basically starting from scratch.”

Between Santa Rosa school and a day care center in town, Russell estimates there are about 500 children who need help. And Russell feels like they’re “depending on me.”

“We’re pretty much regular people living from paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “That’s why we want to reach out to others who have good hearts and may be able to help us in this endeavor.”

So far, with their personal money and donations Russell said she’s raised about $1,300.

Flicking through hundreds of photos of the devastation from her smart phone last week, Russell said, “I don’t know how they survived.” Adults hovered over the children and they just hunkered down. The school buildings were built of concrete. People seeking shelter in huts didn’t fair so well, she said. About 18 people died in Balangiga during the storm, Russell said.

It took 17 days before Russell heard from her own mother and siblings. Finally, “I talked to my mom and I could hear the voices of my brothers and sisters in the background,” Russell said. “I can’t even explain what a relief that was to hear their voices.”

She continued looking at pictures, with most structures in them now just memories. Some showed Vivian and Bruce Russell in the village distributing food. Others were of tropical and tranquil sea views from family homes, and an aunt’s new place in a separate town that would be nothing short of a mansion in the United States. That aunt had just completed the house, built both stories with concrete and rebar, and Haiyan flattened it all, as well as vegetation that would be used for food and lumber that would normally be used for construction.

“People over there have no insurance,” Vivian Russell said, echoing the words of many Filipino-Americans here in St. Mary’s. “We just basically survive on whatever we have.”

Bruce Russell teared up several times last Friday. He was in Balangiga just a few months ago, to do Christmas in July, where they distributed the lunches.

“We fed all the children in that village,” Vivian Russell said.

“Now, the place is trashed,” her husband said. The former Navy pilot said he could feel their pain. He could feel his wife’s emotions. Going through images of devastation, he said, “people saw the face of grim.”

Love is what’s fueling him to go on. Vivian Russell, too. “It’s my home,” she said.

Nena Cherra, owner of N&N Oriental Market in Great Mills, said she is also taking donations to support efforts in the Philippines. Cherra, who said she has supported several other relief efforts including Russell’s, will be heading to Tacloban, another town hit hard by the storm. She plans to be there two weeks in February and would like to take candy and clothes to children. She’s also accepting cash donations.

To learn more

For information, contact Vivian Russell at 301-643-8559 or To contact Nena Cherra, visit N&N Oriental Market at 20259 Point Lookout Road in Great Mills, or call 240-237-8162. Reach the Filipino-American Association of Southern Maryland at