By Judy Clabes
If you are female with a name like Russell, you learn to develop a sense of humor – or else. Add a head full of red hair, a naturally cheerful disposition, doting parents, a keen work ethic, a creative mind and a good education – and anything is possible.
For Russell “Russie” Coy Jones – Russell was her doting dad’s middle name – today’s possibilities turned on a bright idea that grew out of a near tragedy involving her father.
Russie grew up in Richmond, attended Eastern Kentucky University where she earned a degree in interior design, met and married husband Keene Jones, and settled in to raise a family.
When her mom passed away, Russie and her husband built a new house, specially designed to accommodate her elderly father in private living quarters.
Charles Russell Coy had practiced law in Richmond for 53 years until his retirement. He was politically involved and influential, having been a founding member of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and chair of the state Republican Party.
When his wife passed away, he had been retired for some time, and because of mild Alzheimer’s, COPD and other physical conditions just couldn’t live on his own.
In February 2009, Richmond, along with a great portion of the south, experienced a terrible ice storm. It was expected, but arrived late – coming in the middle of the night and causing multiple power outages, rendering tens of thousands of homes powerless and thrust into a pitch black night.
Charles Coy was watching television when the power went off. He got out of bed to investigate, tangling himself in the tubing of his oxygen tank that he had to wear 24 hours a day, and fell to the floor. Luckily, Russie and Keene were close enough to help so any real tragedy was averted.
But it was a scare that set a loving daughter and son-in-law’s minds whirling, especially as the power outage extended over the next six days. How many power outages do we have in a year?
What if Dad had been alone and badly hurt in his fall? What about all those people Dad’s age who are still able to live alone? Could an accident such as a fall in their home cause them to lose their independence? How many people fumble around in the dark when the power goes off making them possible victims of a fall?
“Benjamin Franklin called necessity the mother of invention,’” Russie said, “and he was right.”
Soon, she and her electrician-husband were hovering over a pile of junk and electrical materials on their kitchen table. With his background in electrical contracting and hers in interior design, they were like the couple in the nursery rhyme – Jack Sprat and his wife – making the most of every scrap, each contributing special skills. With high motivation to find a solution, Rely-a-Light was born.
What came of their labors was a lamp – now many lamps – stylish, varied in design, color and shape, and – more important – functional. They serve as “traditional” lamps in everyday life but when the power goes off, they come on.
The saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” applies to business as well as families. The company name came from Lisa Kelley, a lifelong friend of Russie’s. Their slogan, “Blackouts turn me on!” was the brainchild of Keene’s 71-year-old mother.
Today, the Jones’ Rely-a-Light business, based in a showroom near Eastern Kentucky University, is thriving. Hotel chains are clamoring for it, and it is finding its way into some exclusive company, like QVC and HSN.
The road there wasn’t an easy one, although Russie boasts about a supportive family – four children, four grandchildren, “a wonderful daughter-in-law and a very talented son-in-law to be” for helping all along the way.
As plans were ramping up, her dad passed away, and Russie was diagnosed with cancer and early onset Parkinson’s disease.
“But we didn’t stop,” she said in her characteristically upbeat way. “We continued to improve our prototype and moved forward with the application for our multiple patents.”
They also formed Opal Group LLC and in late Spring 2012 ordered components and built the first 280 lamps in their garage – with the whole family and a neighbor pitching in.
Early marketing was “word of mouth,” Russie said, but the calls and emails began pouring in.
“We attribute our success not only to a wonderful product, but also to the fact that people don’t buy ‘what we do,’ they buy ‘why we do it,’” Russie said, “What makes us different is what we do serves as the proof of what we believe; that safety is not a luxury, it is a necessity! We want our customers to be a part of our company and that means that they feel as strongly about safety in the home as we do.”
Today, production has outgrown the garage. Rely-a-lights are produced and shipped in large quantities.
“We are producing an affordable, aesthetically pleasing product that is engineered and designed in the USA and is reasonably price for everyone,” Russie said. “It’s a dream come true.”
Helping advance the dream today is Lexington’s Bo Lanter who has partnered with Russie to market Rely-a-lights via “seen on TV” spots and social media marketing. Lanter, a former Joe Hall-era UK basketball player, is as enthusiastic about the uniqueness of the product as the inventors are.
“Not only does the lamp provide safety and security for thousands of people who lose power every year, every day around the country,” says Lanter, “it also has a USB port to charge cell phones. This is terrific peace of mind and a measure of security for everyone, but especially older loved ones and our children.”
For more about Rely-a-Lights at www.relyalighttv.com. You can like Relyalighttv on Facebook.
Judy Clabes is editor and publisher of KyForward.com, an online only newspaper serving Kentucky, where this story first appeared. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.