Dream. Dare. Do! This has become Stephanie (Stevie) Russell – Farnham’s life philosophy. “Dream it. Dare to try it. Then go out and do it.” Stevie has faced many physical and emotional challenges in her life and, at times when some would have struggled to stay positive and pick themselves back up, Stevie’s powers of resilience and perseverance helped her come out the other side. Not only has she never given up, she has felt more empowered in every difficult situation and has been driven to inspire and motivate others facing similar hardships in their lives. Stevie’s experiences as a teenager completing her Bronze, Silver and Gold Awards with The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, strengthened her ability to overcome adversity.
“My participation in The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award was rewarding, challenging and life changing. I had never been tested as much physically or mentally. Duke of Ed taught me essential life skills of leadership, friendship, boldness, compassion, grit, service and the pursuit of excellence. I endured some tough moments and grew as a person. Completing the Awards made me part of a vibrant community, gave me self-confidence and was testament that I could get through anything. This resilience was character building.”
Stevie’s Award journey began in 1996, as a year 9 student at Merici College in Canberra. Stevie commenced her Bronze Award at the age of 15 and completed her Gold Award at 21. While participating in the Awards she explored a range of activities including bush search and rescue, survival training, lifesaving, volunteering with St Vincent de Paul, basketball coaching, hiking and handcrafts. Stevie particularly enjoyed dancing, choosing it as her Physical Recreation component for each Award.
“I’ve always loved to dance! I was not the best dancer, far from it, but I have such passion for it. I really struggled to learn routines and often felt embarrassed when I saw how quickly my peers memorised them. The marvellous thing about Duke of Ed is you were constantly encouraged to have a go. It wasn’t about how good you were, or whether you were the best dancer or not, it was about pursuing things boldly and stepping out of your comfort zone, within a supportive and like-minded community. Duke of Ed opened up this whole new world of different things to try and diverse skills to develop.”
Stevie was living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) during her high school and college years which added an extra layer of challenge to completing the physical Sections of the Award. Despite this, she persevered and completed her Gold Award in 2002. During this time she also finished college and joined the Australian Army Reserve, a decision influenced both by the long history of military service in her family and the emphasis on Service in The Duke of Ed.
“The values that Duke of Ed taught me are very similar to the values I had always admired in the military men and women I knew. With both, there is a strong emphasis on the core values of honour, integrity, mateship, courage, self-discipline and duty.”
Whilst serving in the Army Reserve, Stevie completed her Bachelor of Community Education (Health Promotion), followed by her Bachelor of Education (Primary Teaching). She also engaged in youth volunteer work with her former high school as a mentor with Duke of Ed Participants.
In 2005, with 2 months left to go of her teaching degree, Stevie was in a car accident which left her with a traumatic brain injury and a chronic pain condition which affected her memory, speech, sense of direction and ability to walk independently.
“The prognosis was discouraging as no-one seemed sure whether I would improve. Walking was incredibly challenging, sometimes impossible because my legs would spasm uncontrollably or would just give out on me. I often needed a wheelchair and on really, really bad days couldn’t even lift a glass of water. Doctors said I would have to give up my teaching career, Army Reserve, dance and my volunteer work. Basically everything I loved to do. This is where the challenges I faced completing my Duke of Ed Awards helped most. I used the resilience I developed doing the Awards to get through the years of grueling physical and mental rehabilitation and get my life back.”
Lying in bed one day post-accident, a plane flying outside caught Stevie’s attention.
“I had an epiphany and thought, “Wow! What freedom that plane has. I want to learn to fly!” It ignited such a spark in me. I started to write my bucket list from bed with everything I wanted to achieve. Before I knew it I had 100 things listed.”
As her physical therapy slowly progressed and her ability to move improved, Stevie began to tick off her bucket list, despite still suffering from daily chronic pain.
“Duke of Ed really helped me face my fears head on and persevere even when I was scared. The worst that can happen is that if you don’t succeed the first time, you review what went wrong and you try again. In the years since Duke of Ed I have used these lessons again and again. Duke of Ed taught me to be bold and give things a go before I was ready. I was scared of sharks so I went cage diving, I was scared of heights so I learnt to fly.”
In addition to cage diving and learning to fly, the bucket list challenge she set for herself has also included zip-lining, skydiving and fly boarding. Three years ago she also took up dancing again, learning ballroom and Latin dancing.
Stevie’s accomplishments did not finish with her endless bucket list achievements. She found one of the most rewarding parts of the Duke of Ed Awards was the Voluntary Service, which inculcates a strong value for helping others in Participants. In 2013, Stevie became a founding donor of the Hope Medical Clinic in Chibolya, Zambia, a clinic that provides health care services, access to anti-viral medications and family planning and helps reduce the rate of maternal and infant mortality. The clinic offers these services to a community of 34,000 people, treating up to 500 patients a day.
“The reason this was so important to me was because I had been so fortunate to live here in Australia when I had my accident with access to medical facilities that other parts of the world just don’t have. I used part of my compensation to fund the building of the medical centre because they were in dire need.”
While Stevie was fulfilling all her bucket list adventures, she was also confronted with some challenging and devastating family events. She received the news that her brother was shot while serving in Afghanistan and faced a long and painful recovery. Only a couple years later, in 2015, she faced the sudden passing of her Step Mum, Grandfather and Dad, all in the space of a few short months.
“After Dad died, there was so much grief and trauma from losing the three of them so close together. Tragically Dad died at my Grandfather’s funeral. It was such a shock! I realised how short life was. I felt compelled to teach, inspire and empower people to go and live a bold, free and happy life.”
With this in mind, Stevie began her first business called “Stevie’s MADventures”. As she shared her bucket list adventures others wanted to start their own bucket lists, sparking Stevie’s idea to create a business to teach people how to do just that.
“It just grew from there, helping people pursue their life passion and encouraging them to follow their dreams and learn to be really bold and not to let fear stop them.”
In 2018, Stevie began a second subsequent business called “EmpowerME Enterprises”, involving small (4-5 people) retreats and workshops designed to inspire people to empower themselves.
“EmpowerME Enterprises came about because I noticed that a lot of the women I was working with or volunteering with felt disempowered. Before someone can create an amazing life they need to feel empowered because that’s the first step.
A key feature of the Awards was to empower ourselves and to learn to become the person we wanted to be. The empowerment training I created for my workshops include many of the core principles that I learnt going through Duke of Ed.”
Stevie works primarily with women (and men on request) of all ages and circumstances and has hosted multiple international retreats. She also volunteers with women who are domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
The Award has become an integral part of Stevie’s life journey and she still feels a strong connection with it today. For the past 5 years, she has hosted an annual reunion in Canberra for all the people who were involved in Duke of Ed at her high school.
“The people who I am closest with today are the people who I started the Award with when I was in Year 9 and who I didn’t know when I first joined. This was because of the values we all shared being part of something bigger than ourselves and being a part of a team. The thing that I really love each year is to hear how things have worked out for the people I know who have done the Award. It’s amazing to see how many of us are still contributing to our community in the same way we did when we were doing the Award in high school.”
Stevie is continuing to work on her Bucket List, which has now expanded to 200 items, with only 8 left to complete from her original 100. As part of her final 8, she wants to visit the Hope Medical Clinic in Zambia she helped fund.
She continues to dance and recently ticked off another bucket list item when she represented Queensland in December 2018 at The Australian DanceSport Championships in Latin and Ballroom dancing, placing 10th in her division in Latin and 11th in Ballroom.
In addition, Stevie plans to take her first solo flight in early 2019 since learning to fly a Cessna 152. One of her other goals for 2019 is to complete the book she is writing about her life journey and a second book which is a compilation of stories from women she has worked with sharing how they overcame hardships in their lives.
“Despite my adventurous spirit, I used to be so shy in high school. I never stepped forward to be a leader on Duke of Ed weekends. I learned the importance of good leadership and witnessed the difference it could make. Over time my confidence grew and now I live my life determined to make a difference and leave a legacy.
I think it’s important to share, to keep it real. We all have challenges and set- backs in life. It’s what we choose to do in those moments that matters. I would really love people to know that it’s not like all this stuff happened and then magically I was better. That’s not how my condition works. Amongst my business, my retreats, writing my books, my bucket list and all the things I am doing with the medical clinic, there’s still chronic pain, there’s still days I can’t walk, there’s still struggles but you just persevere.
Duke of Ed remains a very important and special part of my life. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it because it was the catalyst for me. It helped me break out of my shell in a way that really tested me and in a way that I’m so grateful for because it set a benchmark for being able to endure other things that happened in my life. The fact that at 37 I still have such close friendships with people from Duke of Ed shows how fundamentally integral it has been to my life.
I never gave up and have achieved goals that others deemed “impossible!” I now empower and inspire others to dream, dare, do!”