HuffPost Greatest Person Of The Day: Russell Morse Goes From Reality Star To Outreach Coordinator
Growing up in San Francisco, California, Russell Morse was a troubled kid. He didn't have the best relationship with his parents and got involved with drugs, theft, and stealing cars, blemishes on his record that landed him in juvenile hall at 16.
"It was a tough few years," Morse told The Huffington Post. "But thank God I was caught when I was. I really believe it saved me."
He spent three years moving around juvenile facilities, eventually finding solace with The Beat Within, a creative writing program with a mission to give incarcerated kids the opportunity to write about whatever they'd like in a safe environment.
"That program changed everything. It taught me so much," Morse said. He felt so close to The Beat Within, in fact, that when he was released, he applied for a job with the program. Soon, he was back in the juvenile justice system –- but this time as a teacher.
He kept writing, too. He took jobs with New American Media and Youth Outlook, where he wrote about juvenile justice issues, school shootings, and politics and developed a deep love of journalism in the process. He also experienced a brief bout of fame when he became a contestant on the 2006 MTV reality show "I'm From Rolling Stone." The show granted him and five other young journalists summer internships at the magazine, and chronicled their experiences living in New York.
Reviewers noted that despite Morse's standing as the show's resident bad boy, he also showed the most raw, journalistic talent.
The experience didn't lead to a full time job, however, and soon the media climate in New York became too unstable for Morse, who stopped feeling useful. "I think I realized the whole freelance thing wasn't for me," Morse said. "I craved some stability."
That's when a friend of his told him about The Door, a New York-based youth development and outreach nonprofit. "This was an organization doing so many of the same things that other organizations did for me when I was a kid," Morse said.
He began working with Pier 45, a program founded in 2006 to reach out to homeless and estranged LGBT youth who populate the crowded West Village pier in Manhattan. Wandering the streets from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., Morse and his team talk to kids in need, gain their trust, and connect them with services.
That's the side of Morse that nobody else really sees, said David Vincent, the Director of Special Initiatives for The Door. "He's down on the piers, at Tompkins Square Park, at Penn Station, doing street-based intervention. Whether the kids need a hygiene kit so they can brush their teeth, or immediate transportation to the hospital, he provides that for them."
While some of the kids choose to remain on the streets, just as many are connected with foster care, group homes, legal assistance, and health care.
"Most of these kids had been kicked out of their homes because of their lifestyles," Morse said. "Because their families didn't approve of their identities. They don't really trust adults when I meet them."
Morse has fond memories of one transgender teenager he worked with, who, after years of struggling, came into his office "jingling the keys" to his new apartment. Another homeless teenager is now enrolled in culinary school, thanks to Morse's assistance.
Why did he choose to focus on LGBT kids in particular? "Honestly, they're the coolest kids I've ever met," Morse said. "In a city like New York, there's so many of these amazing kids hanging around, kids who are such a real part of the culture. I just like talking to them."
Today, Morse has expanded his role to become the Outreach Coordinator for all of The Door's work with homeless youth, while he also finds time to pursue journalism on the side.
Just don't ask him about the reality show. When HuffPost first spoke to Morse, he didn't even mention the MTV program that gave him his five minutes of fame. "Damn that Google!" he said, when he was finally asked about it. "I'll never be free."