You know your kid is extraordinary when he starts building his own toys instead of asking you to buy them from stores. Russell Zaretski was that kid.
Russell was twelve when his passion for making toys began. “I used to collect odds and ends of broken toys in a chocolate tin. Sometimes I get toys from my Kinder Surprise and then take them apart and reassemble them to become characters I want,” said Russell.
The first toy he built was a simple two piece assembly of a soldier holding a gun. He then started building more and more toys to add to his collection. “The characters I create are inspired by things I see in movies, comic books, cartoons and my own drawings,” said the now 22-year-old.
Russell would then bring his toys to school and start playing with friends. “I made up a game where the winner will get to keep the toys he captures,” he said. Within a matter of months, Russell started conceptualizing ideas to use his little toys in a board game. He worked on his idea and started making enough characters to fit his board game.
But something changed in Russell. He no longer wanted to share his game with the kids at school. “I started feeling paranoid that my friends would steal my ideas and my toys so I stopped bringing my toys to school,” he said. Russell would hide his toys and work on them in secret. He never talked about his thoughts with his parents and they did not suspect anything was wrong with their child till he was 15.
“I remember feeling that the world around me was moving in slow motion but I was moving fast. Even the sounds that I heard were slow but my own voice seemed like it was going at a super speed. I told my mom about it. We called it ‘the feeling’ because we didn’t know what it was,” he said.
This strange ‘feeling’ then progressed to audible voices of people screaming at him. It was at this point that his parents took him to see a psychiatrist where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and clinical depression. Schizophrenia is a neurobiochemical brain illness that can be treated with medication, a healthy lifestyle and a good support system.
Doctors had told Russell that he would have to be on anti-psychotic pills for five years, before he would start seeing any positive results. He was unable to work. Even making toys had become a chore.
“There used to be moments when the illness made it difficult for me to concentrate in order to complete a task,” he said adding that he was always in and out of the psych ward.
His family tried everything from brain scans to acupuncture to help reduce his symptoms. They also attended the Family Support Group offered by the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society where they met and compared notes with other family members in similar situations.
“During one of these sessions, my parents heard about a practitioner of alternative medication in Orlando. We had made an appointment to see him and I have been on a whole range of supplements and a strict dietary and exercise plan ever since,” he said.
Russell’s willpower and the strong support from his family members have now enabled him to manage his symptoms and live a normal life. He has also been able to reduce his medication by 50 percent.
He is now working at S.S.C.O.P.E (Self-Starting Creative Opportunities For People in Employment) where he does moving and snow removal. S.S.C.O.P.E is a non-profit community based casual and part-time employment service.
Russell has also started dating about a year ago. His girlfriend, Teagan Unrau, 19, says Russell’s mental illness does not bother her. “Mental illness is no different than a physical disability. There is no reason to discriminate,” she says adding that she loves Russell for who he is as a person.
When Russell is not working, he is at his “toy factory” in the basement of his house where he takes apart discarded printers, electronics and other odds and ends from anything at all that he finds interesting in order to make new toys.
“I sort the parts according to different categories and themes of the characters. I currently have seven themes: Animal kingdom, extra terrestrial, military, demonic, haunted, plants and mystical guardians,” he said.
Over the years Russell has not only improved in his methodology and art of toy making, he has also developed a prototype of his board game which he calls “Warchess”.
Warchess is a strategic two-player board game played on a chess board. Each player is allowed to choose eight pieces that would be used to attack and capture the opponent’s pieces. Russell currently has more than 100 toys in his collection which the players can choose from. Each piece has specific skills and powers that make them unique. These characteristics are tabulated on a card which is given to the player.
Warchess uses two sets of dice each turn. One dice determines the number of moves and the other dice determines the power of each attack. A player can only attack if the number on his dice combined with his own health is greater than his opponent.
“This game challenges the mind and skills of its players. It can be quite complicated if you are playing it for the first time but after you get the hang of it and you are familiar with some of the pieces and their abilities, things get more exciting,” said Russell.
“I have taken years to test this game and refine the rules and methods. I usually have friends over to help me test out the game,” he said.
Russell hopes to patent his idea and have it developed into a full- fledged video game. He also hopes to have his own line of toys that are sold in stores.
“Making toys keeps my brain active with positive and creative thoughts. It gives me hope that someday in the future, I will be able to share my game with the world.”