Russell Stephens: Intense, Curious & Enigmatic

At the Prevention Center, one of my favorite places is our Playroom. Most days it’s filled with uproarious laughter, with bangs and kerplunks, stories being told, and friendships being forged. But when it’s not chock-full of children, you will occasionally find a staffer on its back patio practicing hoops or big people sitting in tiny chairs in a makeshift meeting room. On Tuesday nights, it’s full of families and a whole lot of finger-licking food. The Playroom is home to the Holiday Toy Store and so much more. One thing is constant though, without a doubt, whatever is happening in the Playroom, Russell’s going to be there. He’s there creating, coaching, and cleaning — ensuring that San Francisco’s kids have a safe refuge to be just that — kids.

Q: Tell me about your life.
A: I grew up in a small town where the only thing that’s opened past 7:00 p.m. is Safeway. I left in search of something bigger (and open later). Since my exodus, I’ve bounced around Southern California, playing music and paying bills, and eventually moved up to San Francisco. My journey to San Francisco was a long one, loaded with obstacles and distractions. But once I arrived, I attended San Francisco State University, and recently graduated. I spend my time enjoying this beautiful city, working at the Prevention Center, and riding my motorcycle.

Q: When & why did you come to join the Prevention Center team?
A: I joined the Playroom team in 2008 as a volunteer and occasional sub. I was hired on staff in 2009. I came here to share my talents in a setting that seemed to value children’s free time and free play above all else. It’s important to me that children have exciting and meaningful experiences with adults. I want to provide a space that does that.

Q:  What’s a typical workday like for you?
A:  As a coordinator for the Playroom, I have to balance a range of priorities. The kids and families depend on me to make sure the Playroom is an inviting, interesting, and therapeutic space for them. So, definitely some chunks of the day are filled with games, diaper changing, conflict resolution, and silliness. The rest of the Prevention Center depends on me to respond to emails! And as a coordinator, I’m definitely doing a lot of scheduling and supervision, as well as making sure our program and the physical space is functioning well for the rest of the Center’s purposes. One of the really rewarding parts of my job is contributing to the long-term vision of our agency’s mission: to prevent child abuse.

Q: You work with kids all day, is it exhausting?
A: Yes, some days are exhausting. I have it easy though. I’m not a parent.

Q: What happens in the Playroom?
A: All kinds of things! Children make art here, make friends, tell stories, build forts, perform skits, yell, laugh, cry, learn, and so on. We value the childrens’ time here and are sure not to miss out on any teaching moments in the midst of all this. It’s important that while they are here, children learn new ways to interact with each other and how to manage their feelings.

Q: What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
A: I’ve worked with some challenging behaviors, but not challenging kids. The ones that offer the most challenges tend to be the ones you have to love the most. The most challenging part of my job is keeping the place clean!

Q: What’s you favorite part of the Playroom?
A: Probably the rocking chair. With all the “kid stuff” everywhere and contemporary furnishings to keep the place suitable for our frequent visitors, our old wooden rocking chair is a reminder that the Playroom is a second home for so many families here. The rocking chair is a place to soothe a crying baby, feed a hungry baby, and it’s an excellent place to watch the room from: It’s nice to sit and rock and observe the kids as they work. Though the kids rarely let me sit too long.

Q: How would you describe your personal mission?
A: That I can look back on my life and know that it was interesting, exciting, and meaningful.

Q: If you could change the world, what would you do?
A: The consensus in the study of human development is that the first five years of life are the most important stages for later well-being (competence, success, happiness, etc.). So why is it that early childhood educators and day-care workers are paid so poorly? Why is it that you need to attend graduate school to teach adults, but only the bare-minimum to teach young children? If I could change the world, I would make early childhood education and care the most competitive field to work in and the most well supported by our resources. Imagine the generations we could raise with that kind of focus. A society of strong, competent, and caring children will see a future of strong, competent, and caring adults. If you want to make the world a better place, you raise a generation that is willing and able to do it.

Q: What makes you angry / sad?
A: Economic inequality and gentrification. Families, artists, and teachers are being squeezed out of the city to make room for more iPhone apps and Facebook profiles. The city shouldn’t belong to the highest bidder, but the people that live here and make it hum. You shouldn’t have to work in tech to own a home and raise a family. I believe the businesses and people benefitting the most from the tech boom owe it to San Francisco to make sure that families and working people aren’t missing out on the growth.

Q: What makes you hopeful / happy?
A: Seeing adolescents enjoy the Playroom. The Playroom is a tech-free zone, so older children need to keep their devices in their pockets (some turn them into me to keep in my office!). This is really difficult for some! There are kids that protest coming to the Playroom because it means they can’t be connected to social media and other forms of online entertainment. But when I see 12 year-olds relax and paint or help with the younger kids, I feel hopeful that a future of people controlled by the Internet isn’t totally inevitable.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about San Francisco?
A: Golden Gate Park. It’s an incredibly beautiful place! There are buffalo, coyote, and all sorts of other woodland critters! The park is so many things to so many different people. It’s a concert venue, a place to exercise, and an arts and science destination. We are lucky to have this park in San Francisco. I live a few blocks away from it and am so grateful for that.

Q: What are you most passionate about?
A: My work, my Harley, and the music of Bruce Springsteen.

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