Heroes EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK

Local volunteers are the superpowers behind Hilton Head Heroes, a nonprofit that gives families with critically ill children a week’s vacation from hospitals and heartbreak.

It’s no surprise caring about children is central to the lives of Gregg and Lindy Russell. For decades, Gregg has entertained families under the Liberty Oak in Harbour Town with his original songs.

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HILTON HEAD HEROES
Gregg and Lindy Russell are shown with the Tillotson Family earlier this year. The Tillotsons have twin girls, both with Down’s syndrome. Both are being treated for leukemia.

Lindy, a retired Delta flight attendant, home-schooled their two daughters so they could travel with Gregg around the country. After Gregg’s performances, the family often spent evenings visiting children’s hospitals for kids who couldn’t come to his shows.

But a visit 15 years ago changed everything. As the Russell family visited children at Arnold Palmer’s Children’s Hospital in Orlando, one ill little boy named Michael told Gregg, “I want to see your tree in Harbour Town.”

It stuck with the Russells. When they returned to Hilton Head Island, Gregg and Lindy started asking people if they could help pull together a week-long vacation so Michael and his family could enjoy time together on the beach and away from doctors and hospitals. Immediately, the community rallied. Someone offered a house. Someone else donated grocery money for the family. Local businesses tossed in gift certificates for meals, boat rides and movies.

From that one week sprung Hilton Head Heroes, an entirely local nonprofit organization that creates happy vacation memories for families with children suffering from life-limiting illnesses. Without Hilton Head Heroes, the families wouldn’t be able to afford a vacation.

Today, Hilton Head Heroes is housed in a roomy three-bedroom Sea Pines home retrofi tted to accommodate wheelchairs, hospital beds, other medical equipment and large families. If needed, there is even room for a nurse.

Much of the work on the house and most of the furniture and appliances were donated by local businesses, most recently a new poolside grill.

The organization’s primary mission is to get the child’s immediate family together for a beach vacation and the chance to enjoy each other.

“We had a Mormon family with nine children. Some people had to sleep on the floor, but big families are used to sleeping on the floor,” Lindy said. But they were all together. Lindy, the president of the organization and its only paid staff member, said referrals

come from social workers at 48 hospitals from the Southeast to the Midwest, and even one in Washington state. Those referrals keep the house occupied 50 weeks of the year.

“We give them a personalized vacation,” Lindy said, thanks to frequent phone calls with the family and an application form that requests the child’s “favorites,” from colors to activities to games to foods.

“By the time they arrive, I’ve talked to them for 10 months,” Lindy said. “I know all about them. I even know the name of their dog.”

In turn, the families know a lot about Hilton Head Island and have received copies of Gregg’s music and books and his movies, “Come Away Home” and “Camp Tanglefoot.”

As the families’ visit approach, the legion of Hilton Head Heroes volunteers goes to work to customize the week for them. A host family greets each family and leaves behind a basket of maps, gifts, T-shirts and games. A booklet of coupons covers activities specific to each family, from boat rides to kayaking to horseback riding at Lawton Stables. All dinners are covered, as well as five lunches and a couple of breakfasts. In addition, each family receives a $100 grocery certificate and $100 of spending money.

”Illnesses like these are financially devastating to families,” Lindy said. ”Often, one or even both parents have to quit their jobs to take care of their families. On this vacation, we don’t want them to have to worry about a thing.”

Also part of the package is a family portrait so everyone will remember the trip to Hilton Head. There are other memories, too, Lindy said. For example, bike rental companies deliver whatever bikes the families need, be it child seats or three-wheelers.

“One girl had been sick so long she had never learned to ride a bike, so we had one with training wheels,” Lindy said. “By the end of the week, she was able to take them off. It was great!”

Not only do the families benefit, but so do the many Hilton Head Island volunteers.

“We have 120 host families,” Lindy said. “This is a very giving community. This program helps all of us realize what we have and appreciate where we live and our own families.”

Although requests outnumber available slots, Lindy rebuffs suggestions to add another house.

“I want to keep this local, and I don’t want to overextend our resources.”

As it is, she spends most of her time seeking donations to cover the Hero House mortgage and guest families’ expenses.

After 15 years, the Russells show no sign of letting up on their efforts with Hilton Head Heroes.

As Lindy said, “I can’t imagine not doing this. This is my life.”

ANNUAL HILTON HEAD HERO VOLUNTEER APPRECIATION OPEN HOUSE

2-4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7

The Hilton Head Hero House 1 Spanish Moss Road, Hilton Head Island

Guests are asked to bring a gift card to a local grocery store to share with Hilton Head Heroes families. www.hhheroes.com