“We’re gonna do this.” That is a sign of determination. “There’s lots of good things happening.” That is a sign of optimism and hope. Tim O’Connell, the founder, leader, and momentum behind the nonprofit Tommy’s Place, a home away from home for families of kids with cancer here in Falmouth, is all those things—determination, optimism, and hope personified. He uttered those words to me this week as I enjoyed a visit with him and a tour of the progress at Tommy’s Place, the project that began with a chance encounter more than a decade ago but has become Tim’s personal chef d’oeuvre and raison d’etre all at once.
I first wrote about Tim and his quiet philanthropy more than two years ago, after we met for a cup of coffee to talk about his dream for the former Elm Arch Inn in downtown Falmouth. A mutual friend suggested we meet, and I heard the moving story of Tim’s desire to renovate the venerable but tired building in Falmouth Village and make it a vacation home for families of kids with cancer. His combination of sincerity and tenacity struck me; we’ve been friends since that day and I have followed his project with admiration and enthusiastic support.
When I introduced Tim through this column in the summer of 2018 I noted that, “Sometimes, albeit rarely, when something or someone seems too good to be true, it is actually good. And true. Tim O’Connell falls into that category.”
When we connected a few months ago on the recommendation of a friend, our plan was to sit at Coffee Obsession and simply get to know each other. Tim wanted to share his vision of Tommy’s Place, “a home away from home for kids fighting cancer.” We smiled, laughed, and shared stories, departing hours later feeling like old friends, realizing we have several friends in common, all with a common commitment to giving back.
It is that commitment to giving back that fuels Tim’s efforts to launch Tommy’s Place. A successful developer who has built and renovated properties for decades, his latest project is very different, as this one will result in the opportunity for not just one family but many, many more to make memories for generations. Tim owns properties in Falmouth and Quincy and on Martha’s Vineyard, and it was the Vineyard property that unexpectedly launched the vision for Tommy’s Place.
More than a decade ago, a friend asked if Tim would be willing to donate his Vineyard house for a week to provide a vacation respite for the family of Grifyn Sawyer, a young boy stricken with cancer. Tim gladly obliged—and it changed his life. As a flyer telling the story of Tommy’s Place explains, “Grifyn lost his brave battle with cancer on December 26, 2007, shortly after a memorable family trip to the Martha’s Vineyard home of Tommy’s Place founder Tim O’Connell. Tim never met Grifyn, but he never forgot him.” Grifyn’s family relayed to Tim the lasting value of the family time and the memory-making that week provided. Tim decided to share in his own success and work toward providing that life-changing experience to other families. He then needed a place. He found it in the Elm Arch Inn.
For generations, the Elm Arch Inn has been a treasure in the middle of Falmouth Village. Owner Flossie Richardson was a colorful and enduring presence in our community, fiercely committed to the history of her property and her Falmouth. Her son Peter, charged with the responsibility of finding new owners for his family’s property after his mother’s passing, has been judicious and particular in selecting someone to carry on the Elm Arch tradition. In Tim O’Connell, he found that someone. In fact, Peter so believes in Tim and in Tommy’s Place that he discounted the listing price by $200,000, allowing the project to move forward and cementing the Richardsons’ legacy as committed and generous members of the Falmouth community.
Today, more than two years later, Tim has painstakingly and beautifully restored the inn and shaped it with his own loving hands and amazing vision. The project has been transformed from an idea to a movement. Over the last two years, community members and generous supporters from all over the commonwealth—but particularly here in Falmouth—have supported Tim’s efforts to make Tommy’s Place a reality and to make his dream of offering that special place for families of kids with cancer a reality. The fulfillment of that dream is now in sight.
This week, as I walked through the building, Tim’s commitment to honor the history of this downtown institution was clear. As the plaster and walls were removed, the original hand-carved beams on the ceilings and the original floorboards became exposed, and Tim decided to leave them and highlight them to add character to the rooms. The multiple fireplaces throughout the home, although not still operational, have been maintained in a nod to the history of this 19th century landmark; they will also add some character to the rooms themselves. “I’m celebrating history,” he noted. But he’s doing more than simply celebrating the history of this historic building; he’s keeping it alive. For five weeks this summer, Tim brought his own work crews from Martha’s Vineyard to assist in the framing and construction. Each day as many as nine workers would make the trip across Vineyard Sound on Tim’s modest 26-foot boat to help with demolition, framing, and construction.
However, like many efforts during the current pandemic, promises of assistance and support have been stalled. Typical fundraising activities like an annual golf tournament and a cornhole event have been postponed. As the now-weathertight building nears its final phase of construction, more help is needed and Tim is making an appeal to the community that has supported him to continue to rally behind this selfless effort.
Tommy’s Place is still a shining example of the generosity of the Falmouth community. Tim took me to the kitchen, which will soon be adorned with appliances kindly donated by Bob and Paula Crane of Crane Appliance, and cabinets donated by Steve Botello of Botello Lumber. Tireless philanthropists Bill and Linda Zammer, who were among the first to offer to help, are still engaged and on board. Chris Carney of C. Carney Environmental has been steadfast in his support, as have founding members Tom and Jodi Davenport, who hosted a gathering of friends last summer and are committed to supporting the library room and have brought several other friends into the Tommy’s Place family. Chris Dias of Specialty Builders Supply has been a quiet but indispensable supporter, providing siding, windows, roofing, lumber, and a host of other support. Jesus Barroso from Advanced Green Insulation has been a Tommy’s Place savior, providing all of the expensive foam insulation and labor at no cost. The list goes on, but has gotten shorter. Some people understandably were willing to help before COVID-19 changed many lives, ended others, and limited resources available to give.
Part of Tim’s solution to that funding challenge has been to proceed using his own resources, like bringing his crews from the Vineyard to frame the home, but this has been a community effort from its inception and Tim remains hopeful that despite the pandemic, the Tommy’s Place community—and the larger Falmouth community—will continue to be generous and help open the doors to the first family in need. Donations are accepted on the Tommy’s Place website at www.tommysplace.org, and Tim answers every email personally at email@example.com. Tim knows that real wealth in these troubled times is attained not by accumulating but by giving. He has given his heart and soul—and his resources—to make Tommy’s Place a reality.