About our Guest
Russell Pratali is the Principal CEO at River of Light Ltd., a non-profit organization dedicated to picking up and delivering perishable food products to needy individuals, homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens throughout Chicagoland six days a week. In this episode, Russell tells Chris about his experiences being commissioned by (now canonized Saint) Mother Teresa of Calcutta three separate times to feed the most vulnerable of society. Through his work, Russell has shown how business leaders can serve the poor by leading a selfless lifestyle. He is also a husband to his wife of over fifty years, a father of two, and a grandfather of six.
Russell: I am a 75-year-old gentleman who I live in Westchester, Illinois. I have been married 51 years to my high school, sweetheart, two children, six grandkids, and one is autistic and she’s a beautiful young lady.
She’s the joy of my life.
Chris: What about you’re also the executive director of a nonprofit, correct?
Russell: Yeah. Started about. 31 years ago. What we do is we pick up food from all different types of food stores and we preserve it, pack it and ship it out to anywhere from 30 to 35 food pantries and soup kitchens all through the Chicago-land area.
And with the pandemic problem, we’re actually increased by 20%. So we’re moving every day, six days a week.
Chris: Wow that’s awesome.
Russell: I think our food could be found in about a million plates a year now. I think we crossed that threshold.
Chris: That’s amazing. Thank you for sharing. How did you get to the leadership position that you’re in?
Russell: I had a little career, it’s a Northern trust bank. And I had the opportunity to leave it and work for a gentleman who was very, he was my mentor. And we both left the same bank at the same time and he wanted me to be his right hand for all his ministry work. And the first thing that was set up was a trip back in 1989.
With about 60 teenage kids to go to the Medjugorje of which we had to stop off at Rome. And unfortunately, we missed our flight from Rome to Medjugorje and we got trapped for 10 hours. And finally, on about the 10th, 11th hour, my daughter who happened to be on the trip came by and she says, dad, you never guess he was coming by here.
I says, yeah okay like who? Mother Teresa! Come on, give me a break. Sure enough, Mother Teresa came by with a couple of her sisters and she was there with the Pope to get permission, to go to Russia with the Chernobyl accident. And she heard about our problem. And she says don’t worry about a thing in the next two hours you’re gonna be going to someplace, no problem.
I would go with you right now, but I have to go to Russia and pray for me because she says. I’m going to go cause they want to see my face and the deal is they only want to give me one sister house in Russia. And I says, no, I’m not going til, I get it four.
I was like okay. And she’s pretty strong lady, so we had about a seven, eight minute talk with her and sure enough, but an hour later somebody came by, says we got a plane waiting for you. So it was cool. She was right. And then with when I went back, we had such an experience with those teenagers.
I went back, I felt a call and one of the first things that we set up from that is the John Paul youth music association to help churches in Chicago land area, establish adoration rooms that they couldn’t afford it. Part of our group, a couple of our successful businessmen would give up to $30,000 a year.
Just to open up one of the rooms for adoration. And we got Cardinal Bernadine at the time and he said totally let’s do it. So one of the first chapels that we did was the sisters of charity, which is the mother Teresa sisters. They were in 120-year-old chapel over there on El porta and 18th street with no air conditioning and virtually no heat.
Oh, so during the summertime, it would get up to be 115, 120, and other than her habits. So we reconditioned everything. We gave them a bathroom. We gave them everything else. And because of that, we found out that Mother Teresa, about four years after we had the trip to Medjugorje, we were invited to meet Mother Teresa again.
She Wanted to thank us personally, for opening up the chapel. So I went, it was in, I believe of Aurora, Illinois, and she came in big entourage police escort her, multiple reporters, camera crews everywhere. I was one of seven people allowed to be in the sister’s house when mother appears, we got a lot of pictures of this, and it’s really interesting.
She comes in and there’ll be about 30 sisters there and they speak in tongues when she’s there. They have a special song that they sing after that. She went directly to adoration and we were allowed of the seven, five minutes with mother at the same time. So when it came my turn, I didn’t know what to say.
Here I am. I’m in front of Jesus. I’m moving, I’m on my knees and mother Teresa’s right next to me. And all I had was a picture of somebody took of me holding Mother’s hand in the airport. And so I didn’t know what to say. Now. This is four years later and all of a sudden, I said, as a mother. You may not recall, but that four years ago you were at the Roman airport.
You came by, give us confidence. And here’s the picture that I took of you. And she says, remember when I told you, when I’m going there, I want to get four houses. They don’t want to give me one. And she waved her finger. I got four houses. How can this woman, remember four years later that incident how she’s waving her finger and all the interviews that she must have taken through her life.
It was incredible. And I just said, wow, this is something else. There’s mother Teresa, there is our Lord and Savior and I’m right there. And I just knelt down. I reached down and grabbed her hand. I just went again. I said, thank you, mother. I will continue to help feed the poor, feed the homeless and the needy in your name.
And sure enough, we started River of Light. It’s on our website riveroflightchicago.org. And from that interview and meeting her and the sisters we are now really on our way. And like I said, for. We probably get to reach about 300,000 people a year, and then you times that because people have families.
And then your meals and everything. So it’s a very humbled I still want to know why me, I feel so honored doing this for the last than 30 something years, but I hope I continue to do it as long as I’m alive.
Chris: And so you’ve been doing this now for 30 years, correct?
Russell: 31st year coming up.
Chris: Yeah. Wow. And not only to be able to meet Mother Teresa once, which is most people just that just once in their life, they’d even come close to being able to meet a Saint. But for you to be able to meet a Saint two times in your life, that is
Russell: Actually its three, because I got invited, we had a mass right after adoration, but an hour later we had a special mass for certain people that were invited.
And I have pictures that somebody took pictures of me going up to her and she has a miraculous metal that she handed out. So I cherished just to this day that she handed me this metal. I know people need help. I’ll share that metal with them. As long as they bring it back.
Chris: I think one of the things that I’m taking away from this story to it from a business perspective, Is that, that as you said, Mother Teresa had conviction, here is this, probably a hundred pound, nothing, little wee little woman, going against the Russian government.
And they, them like negotiating their position to say, you’re only going to get one mother house, one convent in, in this area. And her heart was convicted for four. And it’s it’s just that lesson that the person that, that wants it more oftentimes in negotiations is going to be able to get her way.
And it really doesn’t matter about what size or stature you are. It’s about that conviction that you bring to business. So thank you for sharing that that story.
Russell: She was very strong you’d think she was really sweet and mellow, she’s a strong lady. You talk with her and you respected every word she was firm.
No nonsense. That’s how strong her faith was.
Chris: So Russ, you’ve been running a nonprofit now for, these coming up on 31 years. If you had the opportunity to coach yourself on years, when you’re jumping in what lessons do you think that you would want to coach yourself on?
And I asked you this question because, there’s a lot of young listeners that are thinking about either starting a nonprofit or starting a for-profit company. And these life lessons and business lessons are critically important.
Russell: That’s a good question. I’ve always made myself available to businessmen who reach a point in their career that they’re stuck and they’d like to leave and do something that credible, they would ask me questions and I always told them, I said first of all, you still have to make a living and.
Provide for your family, but most important is to keep your faith and keep a daily per life, which you, the moment you get up in the morning, like I do, first thing I do is fall on my knees and I said, they’re larger. You didn’t take me. So apparently there’s something you want me to do today. And the same thing all through today, keep in touch, play good music, and don’t be distracted by, the news of today.
Cause we can get you down. And then have a good day. Timeframe at nighttime, I’m a little different I ended up sleeping on the couch. 11 12 o’clock and my wife has already in bed. So then I found out about 20 years ago, the best private time at the end of the day for a meditation is at nighttime.
And you got the quietness to the house and that’s when you can devote yourself and offer up the day’s work that you did for the. And hopefully that that blossoms into strength to get up and want to do the same thing. And that’s been going on for so many years. I really cherish my evening meditation, private prayers.
I think that’s important to have some recognition that you should have the opportunity to thank him every day that you have something out there you want me to do
Chris: Excellent. Well thank you for for sharing that. I think this question, the next question kind of funnels into that too. The show is all about like where virtue and business intersect and the fact that you’ve been feeding the most vulnerable of our society for for 31 years and devoted your career to that.
There’s no question that you’re a virtuous man. But. Maybe the better question is why do you do what you do and what do you get from the work that you’re doing as well?
Russell: I think I’ve had it from the very beginning. It was one of these kids in a neighborhood that just always wanted to help people.
I, it was. An addiction. I went to the playground and I wanted to help sprinklem keep the Tufts down. I bring out the base, I always volunteering and I enjoyed it and I enjoy doing good things to this day. I know on my way to down in some of the most toughest parts of Chicago, I have some bags of goodies next to me that when these gentlemen.
Are begging on the street, instead of giving them money, I’ll give them a small little bag of cookies or grapes or something, and they look forward to it. They see my truck and they know what’s coming. They know they’re going to get something from me. So I’ve always wanted to volunteer, but I think one of the secrets is other than keeping some type of study per life, which you.
I’m part of a men’s per group. I’ve always been part of a men’s program or we meet once a week or once a month currently I’m in this group that you’re aware of that we meet once a week. But keep some type of structure. We found that when men get together privately, and then you have, a minister official.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you get comfortable in these groups of mins per group. And regardless of what the format is, feel free to let them know the struggles that you have. And that’s very interesting to learn from other men and on hopefully the ladies have their per groups too, and they talk to each other and say, I’m having a problem with my grandchild.
I’m having a problem. I think if you can trust these people and you have a leader in that group, you’re going to find out it’s good to get it open and get some advice. And that’s something that I have. What I cherish my per life to in my daily life is be a good listener. Don’t be afraid to listen more than giving back information.
Listening is very important.
Chris: Thank you for sharing. And, obviously Russ, our audience has all sorts of walks of life. And I think, like while on the Christian side or Jewish side or whatever your religion may be, there’s always groups that you can join at church to be able to connect with people.
And for those of our brothers and sisters, that that aren’t religious, there’s also, there’s therapy groups. There’s. CEO, networking groups, just in essence, what you’re saying is join a group of your peers and it requires some humility, right? Because you would have to go into those groups recognizing that you don’t have all the answers.
And when you can share what problems you have going on, there’s other people that. That have the same issues that they’ve already gone through and they can help you and coach you and it’s oftentimes free advice. And no, I think that’s beautiful. So thank you.
Russell: I did I, they made mentioned about groups of people, but when I started a stronger life some 40 years ago, There was one gentleman that I would show up to mass all the time.
He had his bile with him. So at one day after mass, I said to him, I says can you share with me? He says, I just like coming to church. I come, even if it’s sitting by myself, I just have one good friend and that’s all I need right now. I don’t mind having a lot of friends, but in this case he says, find one good friend that you can talk to.
And even if you don’t build beyond the one. You have somebody close that you can talk to and you just don’t harbor yourself and you’d be surprised what will come out of that one great relationship. So start off with one great inspirational person that gives you the feeling of comfort. And you can talk to that person very important to talk, but find one good person, a good friend who had thinks like you’d be surprised how far that relationship will go.
Chris: Amen. Yeah. That’s definitely one thing that I’ve learned from you, Russ is the power of having a regular relationship. We meet and have lunch every Thursday togeth, and at first I, as a young executive, I was like, I don’t have time to be able to sit around for this hour and a half.
You think you have all these priorities, but I now, I think we’re coming up on our third year of doing this. I look forward to that Thursday lunch to, to be able to just open our hearts to one another.
Russell: Yeah, I do. I do too. It breaks my time up, but it’s amazing how consistent we are.
We always have the same thing for lunch. Do you ever notice that we never complained? We don’t complain.
And we don’t complain once in a while, so no. I’ve been looking forward all week to get the orange check then, we get around. We laugh, we share stories and what happens, like I said, we’re one-on-one and we share, we bring to the table a little bit of stuff that happened in the past week, and we’re not afraid to bring it up and get an opinion.
And maybe there’s a lot, there’s some things you can’t discuss, but at least you have a friend that at least can express his opinion and not so much telling you what to do, but giving you some direction at what I would do. And that’s comforting for you to think about when you go home at nighttime.
Chris: So now I know you’ve said to me many times that you’re going to, you’re going to try to run River of Light until the grave. But as you look back on, on your career, what do you want to be remembered for.
Russell: Blue-collar, Russ. I want that on my tombstone. Just simple there’s an expression, kiss.
Keep it simple, stupid. Keep your life simple. It’s okay to go on trips. Okay. To earn your money. But give back, give some charity back and know your tolerance on what your budget is, and it feels good. And once you start giving one thing, you’re going to find yourself growing in that capacity that you want to do more.
My wife and I, we gave a lot of money to the organization in order to keep it going. And fortunately I have a board of directors now, finally that see the, what I’ve been going through and struggling, and they’re making efforts to raise money, to help this organization, to get back on her feet. And the last, just to show you.
The last year alone we’ve got two new used transit vans for us to take more food rather than make all these extra trips, because safety is important in these neighborhoods. So these guys have turned around and says, Russ we’re going to handle the finances for now. Don’t you worry about a thing. So I I’ve been blessed.
Chris: Russ, how can people get ahold of you or your organization?
Russell: The website is a riveroflightchicago.com. Correct Chris, cause you’re one of my technicians.
Chris: We’ll have the link up too.
Russell: I’m an old geezer with computers. I know I’m blue collar Russ. So I come to you quite a bit for help on setting up our website and Facebook without you and a few of the other guys. I couldn’t be where I’m at right now. So I’m blessed. To answer the answer your question keep the faith think of the Lord every single day, or if you have an addiction and there’s a higher power.
I’ve got friends that quite a few friends who have addictions and alcoholics and sponsorships and just find one good person. That there’s something much more powerful out there. And again, find somebody that you can talk to, or you want to get advice that you feel confident that’s the most important thing.
Communications, keep it open, keep it safe.
Chris: Thank you, Russ. This is been a very cherished relationship of mine. And I’m excited that you were able to share on the Leading Virtuously Podcast today. Just really enjoyed the time. And I think there’s tons of golden nuggets here of leadership and wisdom that you shared.
So appreciate that. But hope you have an incredible day and thanks again.
Russell: Yes everybody have a great holiday. Please stay safe. Use some choice decisions as to helping others during this terrible situation that we’re in now pray that this vaccine will be powerful enough that we’ll get through this.