A Decade Later, Steve Russell Still Loving His Job as Williamsburg ReStore Director

Call it a crossroads for Steve Russell a decade ago. The native New Yorker enjoyed his job overseeing youth programs at a Williamsburg sports complex. He had been there five years after working in security and coaching at Jamestown High School for nine. Before that, he managed hotels in Virginia Beach and Williamsburg, his initial career after a future in baseball was cut short by an injury.

But more on that later.

Back then, the Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg affiliate was launching a second store in the Williamsburg area and needed a manager to renovate and open it in the space previously occupied by the Fresh Market grocery store in the Colony Square Shopping Center. Steve’s wife, Julie, an Assistant Project Manager with Henderson, Inc., was on Habitat’s Board of Directors at the time and suggested Steve would be a good fit.

At the age of 51, Russell was excited about the new venture and grateful to Habitat CEO Janet V. Green for giving him the opportunity. He was intrigued about the idea of growing a retail store in support of Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg.

The nonprofit believes everyone is deserving of a decent place to live and builds homes that are sold to qualified families. ReStore proceeds of gently used furniture, appliances and other items benefit that mission.

 “It was difficult for me because I really liked what I was doing, professionally,” Russell says. “But I knew about Habitat and had been to a couple of builds. Deciding to come to the ReStore ended up being the best decision I ever made.”

Back then, the interior needed significant renovation. Shortly after starting, Russell removed the brown paper that covered the front windows — an invitation of sorts so passersby could get a glimpse of what was happening inside.

“By the time we opened up the store, we had 30 volunteers already, many of them who are still with us today,” Russell says.

The Williamsburg ReStore started at 18,000 square feet and expanded several times for what ultimately is today known as the largest ReStore in Virginia at 40,000 square feet. When Russell started, there were 2½ employees. Today the staff has grown to 23 full-timers.

The Williamsburg ReStore has morphed into the most profitable ReStore in Virginia (the Newport News ReStore is second) and ranks among the top ones in the nation — a feat considering Habitat operates more than 900 ReStores.

“The blueprint is just so perfect,” Russell says. “People have stuff that they don’t have room for or don’t want anymore. We afford them the opportunity to get rid of it at no cost, which is wonderful for them. We bring it to the store and sell it to people who might not be able to afford a brand new refrigerator, freezer, stove or piece of furniture. Proceeds from that benefit a family that might otherwise not be able to afford a typical 15- to 30-year mortgage.”

The ReStore also saves perfectly good furniture and other donations from populating landfills.

Russell doesn’t just stow away in his office all day crunching numbers. Yes, that’s part of the job. But he’s also on the floor, often helping customers, staff and volunteers. He unpacks boxes and essentially lends a hand wherever it’s needed. He especially enjoys meeting the families who are in the process of becoming homeowners.

“It’s nice to see them putting in their sweat equity hours,” he says.

Russell grew up playing baseball in Long Island and chose New York Tech from several scholarship offers. He decided on college even after the organizations for the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers called him the day before the 1978 baseball draft expressing interest in signing him. He planned to go that route after college ball, but a torn medial ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm — the kind that requires Tommy Johns surgery today — ended his prospects.

Russell thinks about what could have been but overwhelmingly feels good about what is.

“I would have never met Julie if I played baseball,” he says.

The two connected in Lynchburg, where he completed his baseball rehab as a student at Ferrum College; by then his parents had relocated there. The Russells married 37 years ago, and in their early years as a couple, worked in Virginia Beach, both in hospitality.

Steve and Julie have one son, Patrick, who is relocating his custom woodwork business, Williamsburg Wood Works, to Colony Square, next door to the ReStore.

While Russell thinks about retiring one day, he still wakes up with enthusiasm when the alarm sounds. He adds, “You might say I’ve been pretty fortunate.”


Want to invest in the community?


We help as many families as we can, but the lack of decent and affordable housing remains a critical problem in our area. By donating, you will provide upfront funding for building materials and services that makes interest-free loans to Habitat partner families possible. Habitat partner families help to build their own homes - alongside volunteers - and pay an affordable mortgage. Your monetary donations enable us to continue building strength, stability and independence for future local families.