Cape Cod Life / November/December 2022 / People & Businesses
Writer: Mary Stanley / Photographer: Meghan Murphy and Tim Sullivan
Dream-maker Tim O’Connell expands the horizon of hope with a second location for Tommy’s Place.
Whether you call it fate, destiny, or divine intervention, some things are just meant to be; the universe has a way of stepping in and making things happen. Tim O’Connell, founder of Tommy’s Place in Falmouth and Centerville believes it was both fate and divine intervention, along with a strong gut instinct, that led him to create and open the nonprofit organization aimed at giving children battling childhood cancer a one-week reprieve from the daily stresses associated with such a diagnosis. “Whenever I needed something to move forward with this project, I just put it out there to the universe, and eventually I got what I needed to make it happen,” he says.
The venture began in 2007 when O’Connell anonymously donated a one-week stay at his Martha’s Vineyard home to the Sawyer family whose young child was battling cancer. “I just wanted to give Grifyn some time off to just be a kid,” he says. O’Connell never imagined the profound impact that the donation would have on him and, ultimately, the New England community as a whole.
After receiving a letter from Grifyn’s mother, thanking him for his donation and expressing how much fun the entire family had, O’Connell knew that this was a gift he wanted to give many times over to other families in similar situations.
It would take 14 years before the doors to Tommy’s Place would open. He purchased the former Elm Arch Inn in Falmouth, which at the time was on the state’s most endangered historic resources list, due to significant deterioration. He named the home Tommy’s Place, after his friend and founder of the Falmouth Road Race, Tommy Leonard, who had grown up an orphan without a permanent place to call home. “This serves as his permanent home—the one he didn’t have growing up,” O’Connell says.
Leonard had a generous spirit and charisma that drew people in and O’Connell hoped that someday the house would have as much charm and attraction as its namesake.
With 11 uniquely designed bedrooms, courtesy of HGTV’s Taniya Nayak and her designer colleagues, today the home has all the amenities that any family could want from a Cape Cod vacation retreat, including a home theater, game rooms, outdoor basketball and volleyball courts. Artists painted the rooms to spark the imaginations of children. One room mimics an underwater adventure, while another offers the illusion of being on the moon or in space. Another room with its race car bed gives children a fun experience—even while they sleep. And, of course, there is a tavern in the home, where children and their families can create their own fun with pizza and karaoke nights or watch games on the cool mirror TV.
There is even a life-sized chessboard outdoors, along with an in-ground swimming pool.
“I just want these families to have the opportunity to relax, enjoy one another, and have fun,” he says. “I see the families when they come in and they are crushed. When they leave a week later, they are completely relaxed and rejuvenated and that’s what this is all about.”
Although the home is located in the center of Falmouth, close to restaurants, beaches, and other gathering spots, more often than not, families choose to stay on the premises. “There’s really no need to leave. It’s just like Disney, without the rides—or crowds,” he says.
O’Connell wasn’t entirely confident that Tommy’s Place would open, due to the amount of work, inside and out it needed, and he needed money to complete that work. “I was still in fundraising mode in 2020 when COVID hit, so I had to switch gears a bit.”
Trusting his gut and the universe, he took a risk and began building, hoping that as people saw the progress, they would get excited about the project and the money would follow. He needed to “make it rain,” as they say.
And so it did. And when it rained—it poured—pennies from heaven.
“I was standing on a dirt pile in the rain looking around and a man walked up to me, handed me an envelope and said he liked what I was doing,” O’Connell recalls. The envelope contained $25,000. Additional large donations began coming in, ironically, on rainy days.
O’Connell had envisioned that his friend Leonard would be there the day the house officially opened, and would lead the ribbon-cutting ceremony, much like he had done at his signature road race for so many years. Sadly, however, that was not the case. Leonard died before Tommy’s Place opened in July 2021.
In as much as the families who stay at Tommy’s Place love what O’Connell has built, equally gratifying has been the local response to it. People from the community, and beyond, have helped to raise and donate money; from lemonade stands to golf tournaments and everything in between, Tommy’s Place has found a home in the hearts of the people of Falmouth. “I am so happy to see the way the community has embraced what I am doing,” he says.
Having served 70 families from across New England since opening in 2021, and with a waiting list of 65 more, O’Connell was concerned that he might not be able to meet the needs of these families. “I had lost 7 kids that were either on the waiting list or who had previously stayed at Tommy’s Place and that was not acceptable.” His search began for a second home to accommodate the needs of so many families.
He needed money to purchase the second home, so once again, he turned to the universe. And on a rainy day, of course, he received a $1 million donation from an anonymous donor.
He found what he thought was a suitable home on the South Shore and put in an offer. However, when he started to get push back from the town, his gut instinct told him it wasn’t the right place and he pulled out of the deal.
He went home, opened his laptop, and, once again, fate intervened!
“I saw an ad for a home in Centerville. I immediately called the broker and asked to see it the next day,” he says.
He met with the realtor on Friday afternoon. “I couldn’t believe what I was looking at,” he says. “It was just perfect. I put an offer in that day with a deadline of 8 p.m.”
His cash offer of $2.3 million with no contingencies was accepted.
But he only had $1 million in cash.
He needed it to rain again.
By the time of the closing date, he arrived with the full purchase price in cash. “The owners kept pushing back the closing, which gave me more time to raise the funds. Little by little, I did,” he says.
Though the 10-bedroom home doesn’t need to be gutted like its Falmouth counterpart there is significant work to be done inside and out of the majestic 7,000 property to turn it into a magical vacation home for kids fighting cancer, O’Connell said it still needs the little touches that put the smiles on the faces of the children and spark their imagination. “I brought in 10 artists who are providing their time and talents, making each room special.” As for interior design, he says, it is all about having fun. He is looking at police car beds, LEGO® beds and other fun furniture. “There’s a surprise behind every door.” He’s hoping to build a mini-golf course on the front lawn.
Like the Falmouth community, he said the neighbors are already starting to show support for the project. “One neighbor came by and told me about the annual block party they have. I offered to host it and give tours. They eagerly accepted,” he says.
He anticipates that the house will be ready to accept children and their families in the late winter or spring of 2023.
O’Connell continues to fundraise on a daily basis. “We have mortgage, utility, insurance, cleaning, supply and maintenance expenses on the homes – in reality, we will never stop fundraising because our expenses will never go away.”
It’s been a labor of love for O’Connell but he says it is always worth it. “I just love seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces and hearing their parents talk about what a great time they had,” he says. He knows that Grifyn and Leonard are both watching over Tommy’s Place, lending a hand whenever it’s needed. “I just trust the universe and it usually answers.”
To donate to Tommy’s Place, please visit the website tommysplace.org.
Mary Stanley is a freelance writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.