-by Mary Nita Bondurant- “I consider myself extremely lucky. Very few people get to do what they love.” These words were spoken by Russell Orr, who works in the Education Department at Discovery Park of America in Union City. According to Director of Education Polly Brasher, few employees are as persistent as Russell, and none are more passionate!
“Russell is incredible at teaching children,” Polly said. “He has them in the palm of his hand. He truly inspires children to love learning.”
Russell moved to Dyersburg, Tennessee, in 2013 to live in his grandparent’s old home place. Russell said that he was living in North Carolina when his family in Tennessee told him that this tremendous “thing” was being built in Union City. “When I found out what it was, I began applying for jobs,” he said. Then, Russell heard a about a “Volunteer Kick-Off meeting.” He emailed Polly to ask when the meeting for volunteers was scheduled, and she told him that there were three dates to choose from. “Good,” Russell said, “I’ll be at all three!” He said that Polly told him that she admired his interest, but he only needed to attend one!
“I started working as a volunteer in the trailers out back before Discovery Center was even complete,” Russell said. “I knew I needed to be diligent, because there were volunteers who attended the meetings who had been teaching school for longer than I had been alive!” Russell was a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina with a degree in Earth Science and a minor in American Studies. So, according to Russell, Discovery Park of America’s focus on history and science is right up his alley. That first summer, Russell volunteered over 360 hours writing lesson plans for children. During that time, he was winning the hearts of Discovery Park employees who enjoyed his passion as well as his unique and colorful personality.
“We are extremely fortunate to have Russell in our Education Department,” Polly said.
Allthough Russell now has a paid position at Discovery Park as an Educator 28 hours a week, he still volunteers, usually at the Grist Mill. “When I heard that the Grist Mill was authentically built, without any nails, I was interested in being a part of it,” Russell said. So, he attended official “Miller Training” in Virginia. He also had some hands-on training from Mike Ramsey, a miller, and Bill Austin, who was involved in building the Mill at Discovery Park. Now, about twice a month and on special occasions, Russell dons a pair of Carhartt overalls and heads out to Mill Ridge, as a volunteer, to show an admiring audience how to grind corn. “When it is done exactly right, you can make flour,” Russell said with a smile. “When I mill corn, I use it to teach children. I have them winnow the corn … separating it into flour, cornmeal and grits … just like they would have hundreds of years ago.”
Of all the lessons that Russell has presented since Discovery Park opened in November of 2013, his favorite lesson was the one that he and co-worker Martin Kane developed to teach children about the class structure on the Titanic. “We actually set up tables to represent first-class, second-class, and third-class cabins,” Russell said. “The students who sat at the first-class table got to eat eclairs off silver, while the second-class students were given tea-cakes on porcelain. The unfortunate students situated at the third-class table were given unsalted crackers on napkins.” Russell said that this lesson really taught the children about the differences in the classes of people on the Titanic in atangible way.
In addition to teaching classes for Discovery Park, Russell does outreach for the park by going into schools to talk with children about dinosaurs, volcanoes, and other things. “I have a firm belief that science is much more than lab coats … science is amazing, it makes people go WOW!” Russell said that it is his job to “wow” people, and that he never gets tired of it.
When Russell is not at work, he likes to read both fiction and non-fiction. He bakes bread, and he is a photographer. But, mostly, he just likes to hang out at Discovery Park. He has been observed by fellow employees clocking-out so as not to exceed his 28 hours, and then heading back into Dinosaur Hall to engage an audience of interested children in a conversation about dinosaurs.
Russell said that he is passionate about Discovery Park. And, it is very obvious that he is. Discovery Park is fortunate to have Russell.