Helping Heroes

For 10 years, Hilton Head Heroes has provided vacations for families with sick children

Lindy and Gregg Russell, who founded the nonprofit in 1999.Like many couples, Gregg Russell and Lindy Ellison Russell like to flip through photo albums and reminisce about family vacations.

But some of their most precious scrapbooks don’t contain a single photograph of the Russells, or of a faraway location. Instead, they’re filled with snapshots of other families on Hilton Head Island — all kinds of families with one thing in common: a child who has been diagnosed with a serious illness.

In the pictures, these “hero children,” as the Russells call them, are frail, but beaming nonetheless.

They come to the island courtesy of Hilton Head Heroes, a charity the Russells founded in 1999. The nonprofit brings young people ages 4 to 18 with cancer and other life-threatening ailments to Hilton Head for weeklong beach getaways with their families.

“Most of these families have been physically, emotionally and fnancially devastated,” said Lindy, who also serves as the organization’s president, director and hospital liaison “Here, they just get to be together and be a family.”

Hilton Head Heroes provides the vacations through donations and fundraisers like its upcoming Elegant Evening, set for Nov. 6 at Tidepointe.

“It’s just amazing,” Lindy said of the fundraiser, which drew a crowd of about 300 last year.

The idea for Hilton Head Heroes came about in the late 1990s, when Gregg, a musician and actor who performs for kids, was on the road with Lindy and the couple’s two children. Gregg did shows in the evenings, but during the day, the family was often bored. To fill those hours, they started visiting children’s hospitals, where Gregg would sing and play his guitar for the young patients.

Some of the many families that have participated in the Hilton Head Heroes program.

Out of those experiences, the Russells were inspired to create Lids for Kids, a charity that collects baseball caps and distributes then to children undergoing chemotherapy. Soon, the Russells realized they could do more, and Hilton Head Heroes was born.

In the early days, “we had absolutely no idea what we were doing,” Gregg says. The charity was loosely organized, and the couple called on friends to donate money and lodging. But the Russells got organized quickly. They devised a system where the vacations are paid for by gift certifcates from local businesses for meals and activities (the “hero” families only pay for transportation to and from Hilton Head). And in 2005, Hilton Head Heroes achieved its biggest milestone yet: buying the Hero House in Sea Pines Resort, where the selected families, referred to the program through doctors and other health care providers, stay while they’re on vacation. Having the house allows Hilton Head Heroes to host one family each week — more than 50 a year. “The Hero House really changed our whole program,” Lindy said.

Some of the many families that have participated in the Hilton Head Heroes program.

The organization has also recruited hundreds of volunteers, a board of directors, and a feet of host families — locals who help the “hero” families plan their trips and get acquainted with the island.

“Most of the (hero) families are overwhelmed by the generosity of the community,” Gregg said. “They ask, ‘Why would the community do all this for us?’ My standard answer is, ‘How could we not?’ ”

Elegant Evening

When/where: Friday, Nov. 6, TidePointe Clubhouse, 6 to 9 p.m.
The scoop: Heavy hors d’ oeuvres, dessert station, cocktails, martini bar and silent auction. Tickets are $75. Jackets are required.
Details: For reservations, call Kristina Kennard at 843-682-8105.