FALMOUTH – If Quincy's Tim O'Connell ever doubted the need for families struggling with childhood cancer to get away, the completely booked calendar for the rest of the year at Tommy's Place shows just how appreciated the vacation home really is. Not to mention the yearlong waitlist.
"It took three years to get this up and running, and obviously I can't repeat the exact same model, but I'd like to continue this in some form," O'Connell said. "We are looking for angels to help us find another place on the South Shore or the Cape so we can get these kids in there. I know these angels are out there."
O'Connell, 56, is the Quincy developer who brought the long-held dream of Tommy's Place to fruition with the help of an army of donors, volunteers, designers and construction workers.
Since Tommy's Place in the historical Elm Arch Inn opened in early July, some 37 families have spent a free week at the retreat, bringing up to 20 guests with them.
Families from Southeastern Massachusetts described "amazing" and "magical" experiences. Most important, they said, was how the week away from coping with treatments and medical appointments gave their families a chance to reflect, find a unifying strength and just have fun.
Brett Criscuolo, 41, and his wife, Genevieve, 37, of Stoughton, and their three daughters were guests at Tommy's Place in December. Teddie, the youngest, is 5 and endured a year of chemotherapy after an inoperable brain tumor that was diagnosed at age 3. During treatments, her two older sisters, Lucyanna, 10, and Mia Rae, 8, were often on the sidelines.
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"When a child has cancer, the big girls can get left behind," Genevieve Criscuolo said. "The child going through treatment gets all the attention and the others feel left out. ... Tommy's Place gave us the opportunity for all three girls to feel so special."
Genevieve, a kindergarten teacher at Gibbons Elementary School in Stoughton, described the vacation as "just like Disney without the rides. We were all able to come together and each girl had her own room. There was something for every child in the family, not just the cancer child."
Each family arrives at Tommy's Place on Sunday afternoon and leaves the following Sunday morning or before. O'Connell is there each Sunday turnover, an emotional time of opening up, letting go and then preparing to return to everyday life.
"At first I didn't expect it to be like that," O'Connell said. "People cried when they arrived. They cried when they left. Then they laugh, smile, and sometimes just look like weight of the world is lifted from their shoulders."
On the large wall of the hallway inside the front door, the guests have written personal messages of hope, inspiration and determination.
"You're allowed to scream, you're allowed to cry, but do not give up."
"Sometimes miracles are just good people with kind hearts."
"We pray for all who stay in this magical place. May He bring healing and joy. Keep fighting and smiling."
And each family has left something for the next family who will arrive.
"I planned so much, but you can't plan someone's emotions," O'Connell said. "The families still invented more personal touches. They welcome the next family who will arrive, leave notes in the kitchen, gift certificates."
Each family arrives to find a $300 gift certificate to a supermarket, and families often leave restaurant gift certificates for the next family.
The wall going up the stairs is lined with photos of Grifyn Sawyer, a Lynn boy and cancer patient who had a free vacation at one of O'Connell's former vacation rental homes on Martha's Vineyard in 2007. When O'Connell received the family's thank you letters and photographs, he was deeply moved. "My sense of meaning was upended," he said. Tommy's Place is dedicated in Grifyn's memory.
The first overnight guest was supposed to be Danny Sheehan, 8, of Marshfield, who was diagnosed in 2017 with brain cancer that spread to his spine. But when Danny was too sick to come, the inaugural stay instead went to "The Mighty Quinn" Waters, 5, of Weymouth.
Danny died Aug. 8.
Quinn Waters became something of a local celebrity when he underwent two rounds of treatments for medulloblastoma, a cancerous brain stem tumor, in 2019 and again in 2021. Today, he is stable and off of treatments.
"It was a great experience and we were so moved by how incredible the place is," Quinn's mother, Tara Waters, said of their stay.
Waters contacted O'Connell last year to help raise support for the vacation home and Quinn's story brought in the Boston Bruins, who sponsored a bedroom.
"It was amazing how everything was taken care of, even the groceries," she said. "Both my children had their favorite rooms – the space room, the music room, the art room. For them, it's a place they can go and not worry about the outside world and still have a vacation, a good way for the whole family to reconnect."
Cancer treatments often have side effects and children with cancer may also be immunocompromised; they may want to stay inside or be close to their permanent house on a vacation.
"For parents who are not as blessed as we are, or who may be out of work while their child is in cancer treatment, a vacation was not even imaginable until Tommy's Place came along," Tara Waters said.
The Harriman family, of Hanover, were guests last August. The day they arrived, O'Connell was there as promised to show them around. He likes to greet the new families at the front door and show them the 11 bedrooms, "the big reveal."
"You could see the pure joy on his face seeing the kids run around," Elizabeth Duff said. Her older daughter, Caiya Harriman, 9, is being treated for leukemia and will undergo chemotherapy treatments until September. Caiya's sister Corah is 7.
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"We feel like we have found a friendship for life with Tim," Duff said, expressing how much it meant to have the opportunity for a vacation.
One night her husband, Rob, a chef at the West End Grill in Kingston, cooked lobster dinner in the large modern kitchen for family and friends.
Caiya returned to school in the fall. She took in a book about a girl who has leukemia, read it to her class, answered questions and showed a medical kit.
"She's doing really good and she has matured so much and wants to be a nurse," Duff said.
The family of Remy Tufts, of Duxbury, stayed at Tommy's Place the last week in August 2021, while renovations were still going on. Remy was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in August 2018. His family includes his mother, Julie Santos; his father, Barry Tufts; and his sister, Maddison, 9.
Julie Santos noted that for a long time, instead of normal childhood activities, "his days had been filled with medications, blood draws and constant questions about how he feels."
Once they arrived and saw how big Tommy's Place was, they started calling friends, inviting them to come down for a day or two. Used to being in their own bubble, they were immersed again in being with other people.
"It was a rotating doorway," Julie Santos said. "The kids just laughed nonstop. They could watch movies, go to the beach. We got to do stuff we hadn't done in a long time."
Tommy's Place is within walking distance of the restaurants in the center of town, and they went out for ice cream every night.
Santos said she experienced a mix of emotions, and she also thought, "We wouldn't be here if it weren't for Remy having cancer."
"The whole treatment path is full of highs and lows; to have someone like Tim care and put in the effort that he did is amazing," she said. "His personal vision means so much to the families."
O'Connell has been working with eight hospitals in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island for referrals.
A widespread mothers' network on social media was the initial connection to Tommy's Place for many, including Sharon Paradis, of Taunton; her husband, Ryan; and their adopted son, Finn.
In October 2020, Finn was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive brain cancer. He has had surgery and chemotherapy and is halfway through aggressive radiation treatments.
Finn was born 10 weeks early, weighing only 3 pounds, and had many health problems, with three surgeries in his first year.
He was meeting all his milestones and becoming a normal, playful toddler when in October 2020 he became ill and was diagnosed with anaplastic ependymoma, a rare and aggressive brain cancer.
A large brain tumor was surgically removed. He had to relearn how to walk and talk and swallow.
He has been treated at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston and Mass. General.
"It's exhausting, but if he's well, we're well," Sharon said of the long ordeal.
The family found out about Tommy's Place through the mothers' social media network for families with cancer.
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"Anything you need, anything you want done, you talk to a couple of other cancer moms and it starts happening," Sharon said.
"We have had time as a family together at home in Taunton, but there is always something that needs to be done and you don't really stop," Sharon said. "At Tommy's Place, everything you needed was there and you could sit back and relax and enjoy your family.
"I can't emphasize enough how important it is to get that time, to be normal."
What has most surprised Sharon about childhood cancer has been "the number of parents who reached out to me to say they had gone through a similar situation."
Although her husband does not drink, he found the dark, cozy, windowless tavern, with a large TV, to be a much-needed refuge.
"He could go in there and sit all afternoon, watching TV with the lights out." No demands, no worries for the moment.
"Because of his surgery, Finn has a balance issue, but at Tommy's Place, there was so much space he could navigate the place and we didn't worry about falling. We could let him go, run free, and he owned the place."
There is a possibility that Finn will always need some care, because of the effects of the radiation on his brain, and the week's stay at Tommy's Place made facing that future more do-able, more acceptable, even more normal.
"We are the happiest we have ever been because we appreciate more than ever what we have," she said.
O'Connell has also been deeply affected by the childrenand said knowing the families has helped him feel more content.
"You do your best to appreciate what you have," he said. "I have no idea what these families go through. I just guess. They're in pain, Mom and Dad, but they are happy."
For more information, contact O'Connell at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit tommysplace.org.
Reach Sue Scheible at email@example.com
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This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Quincy man gives Cape Cod vacations to families of kids with cancer