A magical Cape Cod retreat for families managing childhood cancer diagnoses.
LOCATED NEAR MAIN STREET IN DOWNTOWN FALMOUTH, MASSACHUSETTS, Tommy’s Place is a unique vacation home for kids (and their families) fighting cancer. One family at a time visits for up to a week, totally free of charge. The home officially welcomed its first guests in July of 2021 and is now a place for visiting families to have fun, relax and make memories.
Tim O’Connell, Founder of the Tommy’s Place charitable organization, spearheaded the transformation of this once blighted property into a destination that’s like an amusement park. The backyard features a restored 1951 fire engine, life-sized chess board, and a Sunbrite outdoor TV with Episode surround sound, while the 11 bedrooms inside each feature a different theme, including the “stargazer” room complete with space suits, a telescope and a constellation-themed ceiling.
The home’s renovation was a years-long project, with contributions of labor, materials and money from literally thousands of businesses, organizations and individuals, and major new components were still being added just weeks before the July opening. According to local smart home technology expert Adam Zell of Boston Automations, what began as an installation of one TV turned into a six-week-long charitable project to outfit the entire home with equipment donated from Snap One, a nationally known manufacturer and distributor of audio/video and home automation products, and others.
We recently had a conversation with Tim and Adam about this labor of love.
TIM O’CONNELL AND ADAM ZELL.
GEORGE: Tim, what was the genesis of Tommy’s Place?
TIM: Back in 2007, someone canceled a week on a house that I rented in Martha’s Vineyard. And rather than give it to my friends or family, I ended up driving in to the Floating Hospital in Boston and asked if maybe a family there at the Pediatric Cancer Unit might want to use it instead. They called me back and said they found a family that was up from the north shore of Boston and they had four kids in the family, and one of them was fighting cancer.
We had them down there and they had a great vacation. It was all done anonymously, behind the scenes. I didn’t think anything of it really at the time; the next people came in after they left, and it was a typical Sunday to Sunday turnover thing. Then a couple of weeks after they stayed there, the hospital called me and said that the family left letters and photos and they wanted me to have them. One of the letters was from the mom talking about her son Grifyn, saying how excited he was to be there and she hadn’t seen him smile and be that happy in so long.
And then her mom wrote about her daughter, which was Grifyn’s mom, the same exact thing in two separate letters that were sealed. That was just amazing. They shared these photos with me and I saw all these happy faces and I’m like, “Wow, they were just so grateful.” And I thought, “If that family was that grateful, there must be thousands of people who feel like that.”
Ever since then, it’s been a burning desire inside of me to do this more on a year-round basis. And it took a long time to get going. I’ve done it different times over the years when I had weeks available and things like that, but it was never enough, you know? So that’s when I just said, I hope someone else feels the same way that I do about this because I think there’s probably a real need out there for it.
And that’s when I kind of thought, jeez… it’s not hard to do it. I mean, the hard part is building the place and raising the money and doing all that stuff and making it free and all that and trying to keep it going. But I just believed that once people heard about it, they would be interested.
It’s named for Tommy Leonard, a Falmouth icon. He was a former runner, U.S. Marine and bartender known for his fun-loving spirit, positive attitude and generous heart. Tommy was an inspiration and changed my life. He was orphaned in his youth, and this is my way of giving Tommy the home that he didn’t have when he was growing up and allowing his generosity and legacy to live on forever in Falmouth by welcoming these courageous young children and families into his home, free of charge, to share in some fun and laughter during some of their most challenging times.
GEORGE: That’s great. I understand the property was an old inn.
TIM: Yes, the place was a complete dump. There was water coming through the roof and we had dry rot and wet rot and it just was awful. And then there was addition, after addition, after addition, throughout the whole place. So literally from the foundation up, it had to be put back together — and it was 200 years old.
GEORGE: Adam, how did you get involved with the project?
ADAM: My wife’s aunt runs the UMass School of Design and is in charge of all the design students there. They were picked to do one room inside of Tommy’s Place. She reached out to me one day and said, “Hey, I need a TV for our room. We want to do something cool.” So I got involved to do one television. I strolled in there and it’s this huge, B&B-style place. And I asked Tim, “Who’s doing all the AV work here? You need a huge network to run this place.” Televisions, lighting. Nothing. There was no one involved. And we were, I don’t know what it was, six to ten weeks from opening.
I saw how much trouble they were going to be into if people moved in there and all of a sudden these kids can’t use their phones and watch movies and all the stuff they like to do.
TIM: When I’m building a house, I typically don’t get into all of this extra technology aspect of things. Fortunately, Adam took what was going to be a basic dumb house and made it into a smart house. He went out and took the initiative to ask for more help from others that were in his industry that he had connections with.
ADAM: I told Tim, “Hey, I’m a small company and I’m stretched pretty thin, but I will do everything I can.” And the next day, I reached out to a whole bunch of companies and just said, “Here’s the project.” I recorded a few videos there. I have a YouTube page, did some tours of the place, and got lots of great feedback. And then Snap One [a manufacturer and distributor of smart home equipment] jumped in and said, “We’ll do it all.” No questions asked. I happen to have a relationship with the Chief Product Officer at the company, G. Paul Hess. So I reached out and said, “Hey, if you could help, let me know.” And sure enough, maybe three days later, we had an agreement. And we got the ball rolling and had equipment not long thereafter.
TIM: They’ve been unbelievable. Adam put a wish list out there to those guys and I didn’t even know about half of the stuff he was talking about, but every time I would turn around, there were boxes and boxes coming into the house. I’m like, “Adam, I didn’t order these things.” So he got everything. We got a big TV for outside, the SunBrite TV. We’ve got the whole speaker network out there for the yard, all the Internet stuff, the rack. I mean, it’s just amazing. And he still comes in now, he was just over there, a couple of weeks ago on a Sunday. It’s the only time we can really go in is on Sundays when we’re between families. And he was in there coordinating things, once again, and he spends a lot of his own time to come over and help. He’s been a great addition to our team.
ADAM: For the network, we put a rack in the basement with a battery in case they lose power. It’s a Snap One network with Ruckus wireless access points, which are the best ones you can buy. For the televisions, we did Sony in a number of rooms because they don’t break — they’re really good products. We also did Samsung Frame TVs in six rooms. The Frame TV is cool because when it’s in “Art” mode, it looks like a piece of art that’s framed. You can put artwork on them, as well as photos, so each television can have a slideshow of the kids that are staying there that week. Kevin Hancock, who owns Frame My TV, donated beautiful picture frames for each of the Samsung TVs.
The TVs were from private donations. In fact, a guy who I was talking with ended up buying all the Sony TVs — it was a no questions asked type thing. He passed away four weeks later. He must have known that he was sick and said, “I’m doing one last good thing.”
GEORGE: Wow! That’s wonderful.
ADAM: And then from there, I had to figure out how we were going to control the house. The electrician had already wired everything for lighting, and we went with Lutron Pico wireless wall controllers. The whole house control system is by Control4, and we have Control4 lighting control with the Lutron system imported into that.
TIM: Yeah, that was a huge help. Just yesterday I used the Control4 app that Adam hooked me up with. Every Sunday now I turn on all the lights in the house and then close all the doors and I surprise the family when they come in, so the kid gets to open up all the doors. It used to be this pain in the neck because there are so many lights in the house. But now I can just push a button and turn all the lights in the house on or off.
ADAM: There’s also a hidden bar in the back, Tommy’s Tavern. You open this old school refrigerator and it’s not a fridge, it’s just a door, and you can go to this back bar, which is really sweet. A company named Reflectel donated a $10,000 Mirror TV. When you walk in there, it just looks like a bar with a mirror behind it. And then you turn it on and you have your Sony TV. So it’s like this cool, magical thing for the kids.
GEORGE: That’s awesome. Tim, how do you determine which family gets to use the house?
TIM: Several hospitals in Boston are referring patients, and I actually have some of the moms now because they’re the superheroes and they know everybody that’s involved at the same time as them. So every time I meet a family in there, it’s amazing. They just want to give back to the next family. We’re basically sold out to the end of December, which is great. Because this is an off season and we think, “Hey, why do they want to go on vacation now?” But you know what? When people are sick, they’re sick. It doesn’t matter what day or month or week or whatever it is. It’s like these moms, especially, and all the pain and suffering that’s going on in their family, that an opportunity comes up for them and they’re taking it, which is really awesome.
In fact, the first mom in the house called me after being there for one day and said, “Tim, I hope you’re going to be keeping this house open year-round because there’s no reason to leave here. It’s July and my kids don’t want to leave the house, because there’s so much to do.” And it’s fun to watch the kids just running around and being kids in there because we have so much. We have a movie theater, a board game room, a game room, we’ve got arts and crafts, we’ve got a music room. And then outside, they can just go crazy. We’ve got a basketball court and a beach volleyball and cornhole and horseshoes and the giant TV. They’re out there all summer watching this giant TV. Right now, the only item that we’re missing, which I was just working on today, is a pool. But there’s a hotel next door that’s been letting us use their indoor and outdoor pools — they’ve just been unbelievable.
GEORGE: And there’s a restored fire engine the kids must really like outside there?
TIM: Yeah, there’s a 1951 fire truck and that’s a big thing when they walk out in the yard and they’re like, “Wow.” They climb all over it and they just have a ball and it’s part of trying to make the place as unique as possible to get people out of their own environment. All inside the house, all the doors are different, all the trim around the windows and doors — everything’s different. And it was designed that way just to make people feel like, “Hey, I’m not in a doctor’s office, I’m not walking into the hospital again.” The girl that’s in there today, tomorrow she has to go and get chemo and she’s coming back. And that was one of the reasons that location was key is because the hospitals are so close, so people can get back and forth and still enjoy their vacation
“There’s a 1951 fire truck and that's a big thing when they walk out in the yard . . . it's part of trying to make the place as unique as possible to get people out of their own environment.”
GEORGE: What do you need for Tommy’s Place at this point?
TIM: Every week, I get to meet these families and they’re just amazing. And they connect with each other. I watch it now through social media, they’ll be in the house and they’ll be commenting on the next family and the last family that was there. They leave letters for each other, they’re leaving gift certificates. And it’s funny, I give them something and they give it to the next family. It’s just amazing.
So we need to be able to keep giving free vacations away. The house is built now and how we want it, and of course we have utilities and maintenance and all that stuff. The goal is to hopefully have more of these houses open up over the years here. All the help that we can get is greatly appreciated, because this one house is nowhere near enough for all the suffering that’s going on.
To make a donation to Tommy’s Place, please visit TommysPlace.org/ways-to-give-2.