May 2007

Are You A Hero?

Author: Linda Hopkins

Local organization seeks those who wish to make a difference

Wanted: Heroes. Must be willing to go the extra mile to make a difference in the lives of others. No prior experience necessary. Salary: NA. Benefits: immeasurable.

As founders of Hilton Head Heroes, an organization whose mission is to bring children with life-threatening illnesses and their families to Hilton Head Island for a cost-free vacation, Gregg and Lindy Russell have seen the many faces of heroes. They are the sick children, bravely battling their diseases. They are the stalwart parents, struggling to provide for their families while facing the grimmest of realities. And they are the dedicated volunteers who play a part in creating a happy memory that, for many, families, is the last with their loved one.

These heroes include the guy who cleans the pool free of charge, the housekeeper who refuses pay for her weekly services, the board member who puts in 50 hours a week to make sure every aspect of the program runs smoothly, the business owner who generously provides money and services, the neighbor who stops by to blow the leaves off the deck, the organization that raises funds on behalf of the heroes, the many advocates who provide everything from toys to toiletries, and the community of people who embrace these families with an outpouring of love like they’ve never known before.

The idea to start Hilton Head Heroes came to the Russells in 1999 when Gregg (widely known for his musical performances under the Liberty Oak in Sea Pines) was in Orlando participating in a benefit with Payne Stewart. According to Lindy, after the benefit, Gregg always went to the hospital to perform an evening concert. One of the acute care nurses approached him with the fact that a lot of kids could not attend. So Gregg returned the next day to play for those children.

A little boy named Matthew Thomas, a leukemia patient who knew who Gregg was, approached him and expressed a desire to come see him at Harbour Town. The Russells immediately set out to make that wish come true. “It was so wonderful to give that family that memory,” said Lindy, adding that Matthew passed away approximately one year after his hero vacation.

The Russells went on to host 13 families that first year. “Believe me. I had no idea what I was doing,” said Lindy. “The hardest part of the whole puzzle was arranging for lodging. I called anybody I could call.”

As the organization grew, the Heroes recognized the need for a consistent housing arrangement. About three years into the program, they started a down payment fund, and in the spring of 2005, were able to purchase a house in Sea Pines to accommodate all of the Hero vacation families. “It’s the best addition. It really turned the whole program around,” said Lindy.

The 3,000 sq.-ft. home has three bedrooms, three baths, a bonus room above the garage and a pool. It is equipped with a wheelchair accessible bathroom and a room with an IV pole to accommodate a child who might be on medication. Conveniently located, within walking distance of Harbour Town and a shuttle ride to the beach, the house is fully stocked with toys, games and essential household supplies such as linens, dishes and paper goods.

Each vacation family is assigned to a host family—local residents who volunteer to help the Hero families get settled into their accommodations and get acquainted with the island. In addition, thanks to the generosity of many local restaurants and businesses, Hilton Head Heroes provides each family with coupons for 7 lunches and 7 dinners during their stay as well as a $100 grocery allowance. Activities provided free of charge include beach excursions, water sports, miniature golf, dolphin cruises, pony rides, pottery making, and much more—all the things families love to do when they visit our beautiful resort.

Who is eligible?
Hero vacations are available to children ages four to 16 who have been diagnosed with a potentially life-shortening illness and who are under the care of a physician for that illness. Parents (or guardians) and siblings are invited to participate as a family unit. To qualify, it must also be determined that a vacation to Hilton Head Island is beyond the financial capabilities of the family.

The program gives priority to children with the most critical illnesses, providing vacations year round. “When you have a sick kid, you throw the calendar out the window,” said Gregg. “You’re marching to a different drummer. It doesn’t matter about school or the weather—doesn’t matter about holidays.”

“We know we’re not curing anybody,” he continued. “We’re providing an experience for them as a family, perhaps the last time that family will have the chance to be together like that. It shifts the memory from tubes and treatments and helps them focus their lasting memories on something positive.”

According to Lindy, every family is given a camera when they arrive. Before they leave, the photos are processed and duplicated. They get an album to take home and the organization keeps the duplicates for their annual scrapbook. “We try to get a family picture as well,” she said.

Although Lindy is a busy wife and mom and also serves on other community boards, Hilton Head Heroes is her fulltime occupation. “I really think about Heroes all the time,” she said. “It’s a wonderful niche we are filling. It’s truly my passion.”

The overwhelming response from the families is, “How could you do this for us?” said Gregg. “Our answer is always, ‘How could we not?’”

How you can help
There are many ways in which you can become a hero—by hosting a family, donating money or a service, or giving of your time to help behind the scenes. With the additional expense of a mortgage, Hilton Head Heroes needs money. “Before, the fundraising wasn’t such a huge issue,” said Lindy, but it is critical now in order to maintain the house, she explained. For a $5,000 donation you or your organization can “adopt” the house for a month, covering the basic expenses.

Every contribution, no matter how big or small, is appreciated. “People have an affinity for sick kids,” said Gregg. “This is a way they can directly reach out and touch somebody.”

“I just feel like everybody has the responsibility to give something back,” said Lindy.

Many individuals and organizations have rallied behind the Heroes, including a group of students from Heritage Academy who recently organized a fund-raising drive. Headmaster, Mike Sanz, challenged them to raise $8,720 (a figure of personal significance to him), with the promise that he would shave his head, kiss a pig and have pie thrown in his face if they succeeded, which they did in nine days. A hairless Sanz kept his commitment, and the students have since upped the ante.

“This is a perfect example of the generous spirit of our community,” said Gregg. “We didn’t ask them to do that. They just got creative and decided this was something they wanted to do.”

What would it mean if everyone recognized the heroism in those around us—instead of ignoring a family in need, seeing them as the brave and courageous people they are to forge ahead in spite of life’s cruelest circumstances? What would it mean if you saw yourself as a hero? How would that change your life and your priorities?

Are you a hero? The answer is up to you.

Hilton Head Heroes wants YOU! For more information, call 843-671-4939 or visit online at Hilton Head Heroes is a non-profit, 501© (3) organization.

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