With his tattooed arms and southern accent, Russell Chambers isn’t the first person you expect to meet in the rectory of a Catholic church on Upper Michigan’s remote Keweenaw Peninsula.
And if you asked him 20 years ago if this is where he expected to be today, he probably would have laughed.
“I grew up in a broken home,” Russell says, recalling his early years in Memphis, “hanging around the wrong people, doing the wrong things.”
After more than one bullet nearly took his life, Russell’s wife convinced him that, for the sake of their children, they needed a change. The family moved to Upper Michigan where she grew up — “God’s country,” as he calls it.
But when she passed away in 2008, Russell was left to raise their five young kids on his own, far from his extended family. His oldest, Hayley, now 16, earned her babysitting certification at 10 years old so she could help with the childcare.
“She had to step up and be a big person, you know. She had to take over that role of her mother to take care of these kids because I’ve gotta go out and work and keep a roof over their heads.”
A mechanic by trade, Russell now works as a prep cook at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge in Copper Harbor. He was promoted to a supervisory position this year and puts in 44 to 50 hours a week during the summer.
But as with so many jobs in this part of Michigan, the work is seasonal. That makes winter a challenge because Russell’s income drops. Summer brings its own difficulties, as the free meals provided by the school system just aren’t there when school lets out.
So to put food on the table, Russell turns to agencies like the CLK Food Pantry at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Calumet.
Susan Rine and Don Osborne run the pantry out of the basement of the church rectory. They provide bags of groceries to 150 households per month, working closely with Feeding America West Michigan’s partner organization the Western UP Food Bank.
Russell says it gives him peace of mind to know those few extra meals will be there at the end of the month. “It really does — to know I can come to places like this to grab that extra bag of food, that extra box of cereal for my kids.”
It isn’t easy (with his kids sharing the bedrooms in their home, Russell says he finally bought an air mattress so he wouldn’t have to sleep on the couch anymore), but he’s has managed to cobble together a life for his family. And Sue and Don have in some ways taken the place of the relatives he left in Memphis.
In fact, Russell and his son Andrew volunteer at CLK and at another pantry in town when they can.
“As much as they give to me, I try to give back to them. Any day they’re open, I’m there, and [Andrew] comes too,” he says, laughing. “It keeps him out of his sister’s hair.”