MANATEE -- Many former prisoners in Bradenton are in mourning over the loss of a woman who treated them with compassion as a mother figure.
The Rev. Jean French-Russo of Bradenton died Oct. 24, leaving behind a legacy of a ministry that helped many former prisoners rebuild their lives. She was 80.
"She took the place of my mother," Paul Hargrove said. "She was more nurturing than my real mother."
Hargrove is one of seven men who live at Jim Russo Development Center, a home owned by the Jim Russo Prison Ministries in Bradenton. French-Russo took over the center when its founder, her husband James Russo, died.
French-Russo was known as "Mama" by Hargrove and all men who reside at the center. All the men came to the home having just been released from a Florida State prison.
Hargrove, raised in a broken home and then placed in foster care, said he didn't know what to expect when he came to the center and met Mama.
"She was totally different. If you had a problem you could go and talk to her," Hargrove said. "She wasn't a criticizing person. She listened to you. She guided you in the right way, but let you make your own decisions."
The ministry was created by James Russo in the 1980s. After being on the FBI's Most Wanted List, he spent 10 years in prison where he found Christ, his wife would say. After his release, he began ministry work and later received a presidential pardon.
French-Russo was a retired United Methodist minister who worked as a volunteer prison chaplain when her husband died.
"This was my dad's vision and passion," daughter Laura Russo said. "She just stepped in...to keep the dream alive and keep the ministry in the front of people's mind."
French-Russo was Russo's stepmother; her biological mother died in 1994. Her step-mother took on the loving-mother role.
"She was an extraordinary woman, very precious," Laura Russo said.
Laura Russo was named chairwoman and director of the Jim Russo Prison Ministrie Board and director following Rev. Jean French-Russo's passing.
"God gave me this calling to continue my dad, mom and stepmom's work," Russo said.
French-Russo seamlessly continued the work of her late husband and his late wife. She took over and ran Mama Mia's Love Train, which collects donated toys and gives them to prisoners so they have something to give to their children when they visit for Christmas.
At the Development Center, "Mama" helped teach the men the Christian way of life, Hargrove said. She also taught them from the Bible and explained how things should be done, he added.
"I had been rebellious all my life, done everything I shouldn't," Hargrove said.
"Mama" and the center changed his life, like it has for those before him.
"Now, I am trying follow God as much as I can," Hargrove said.
Hargrove and the other men say they all miss the woman who served as a mother figure to them as they started their lives over.
"She was a very God-loving person," Hargrove said. "She was just showing us the way."
Jessica De Leon, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.