For Russ Rice, answering the question, “Why do you come to work each day?” is easy. “People are the most important thing,” he says, “and when you’re lucky enough to find a job that lets you help people in significant ways, then you get to live out the old adage of ‘choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’” Russ joined the SERCAP team in 2002 as a grant writer, transitioned to Director of Regional Programs, and has been the Director of Planning & Development since 2011.
In a time when many workers spend five years or less in a job, and hold ten to fifteen jobs on average in their working careers, Russ appreciates the opportunities for growth he’s had at SERCAP. “I have held three important positions...which allowed me to learn and experience the inner workings of a multi-state nonprofit,” he says. “I recognize the value of that experience and it lets me see the impact our programs and services have on people and their communities in a more complete way.” Russ says his favorite part of his job is watching a project’s complete lifespan: from a concept in a staff brainstorming session, through a funding application, to a grant award and then finally to services delivered to members of a community. “People often wonder where their tax dollars go,” he says, “but it’s especially satisfying to sit down with folks in a community and celebrate with them that their new clean water came about through that grant funding process.”
Russ says SERCAP as an organization carries passion that translates over to its board of directors, staff, and ultimately to the people it serves. “I think it’s really interesting that an idea conceived by some community-minded folks 50 years ago--that is, ‘Let’s bring indoor plumbing to our neighbors who don’t have running water and toilets’--has not ebbed. To this day, everyone at SERCAP is inspired by that. Our mission has changed somewhat over time, but we are all driven by the desire to assist folks with the core needs related to clean water,” he says.
In his role as director of SERCAP’s planning arm, Russ says there is always a full schedule of work. “The planning department in some ways is like the boiler on a locomotive,” he says. “Sorry for the corny analogy, but we have to continually stoke it with grant dollars and other funding, otherwise the train just stops!” Planning for, identifying and acquiring funding to run SERCAP’s programs and services is the biggest part of Russ’s job, but he credits his co-workers for any success. “Of course, once we acquire funding, we have to deliver on our promises. Our amazing team at SERCAP makes that happen—from our field staff in each state, to our administrative and finance folks—they all work together to produce quality results, reporting and completed projects which in turn convinces our funders to continue their financial support,” he says. Another chief responsibility is legislative outreach. Again, he credits the SERCAP team for success in this area. “Telling the story of the work we do to members of Congress, state legislators, agency officials and locally elected officials is critical to us not only in a funding sense, but also to affecting policy and advocacy on behalf of the communities and people we serve.”
One of the biggest takeaways Russ has of his SERCAP experience comes from outside the United States. Russ supports an orphanage in Nicaragua through his church and on his first trip there, he was startled by an unexpected comparison. “I was working with our engineering team on a contaminated well in a rainforest village,” he says. “And while I was playing with the kids and shooing away the pigs and dogs underfoot, I had a sudden case of déjà vu. Some months before I had been doing the same thing in an Appalachian homestead with kids and pigs and dogs, the whole scene...and it occurred to me how similar the problems were. If I squinted my eyes, those weren’t palm and mango trees in the jungle, but pines and maples of the Blue Ridge. It struck me that the problems of clean water confront us all. But that here in the United States we have the resources to help our neighbors, resources that aren’t available in much of the world, so there’s no excuse for this being a persistent problem in our country.’
Outside of the office, Russ spends most of his time with his wife, Susan, spoiling their grandchildren, antiquing, visiting historic sites, and enjoying the natural beauty of Southwest Virginia together. An avid outdoorsman, Russ finds great joy in canoeing the New River fishing for smallmouth bass (Susan has bested him with a bigger fish), shooting sports (Russ is a better shot), and primitive camping (she prefers “glamping”). One interesting facet of Russ’s personal life is that he has been a foster parent for 93 children. “That’s why I’m prematurely gray,” he says with a laugh. “Now that I’m grandpa age, I’ve found my heart is still protective of the fatherless.” Now instead of taking care of “the little ones,” as he calls them, he spends time with young men through his church, mentoring them through hands-on projects like working on cars. Russ’s chief pastime by far, however, is woodworking. He builds arts and crafts style furniture from lumber he has cut and milled from native Appalachian hardwoods.
Thank you, Russ, for you continued commitment to serving others and your passion for SERCAP’s mission!