On May 31, 2011, Tom McCann, 61, woke up bright and early in Nantucket and went fishing, then moved on to the beach, then came back for a big family barbecue, even his 88-year-old mother was there.
Sunburned and sated, everyone began to wind down by gathering before the television to watch a celebration on the Mall in D.C. “Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna were acting out the stories of the young wounded from the last two wars,” McCann recalls. A 23-year-old soldier came to the stage. “He stood up with all his might on his prosthetic legs,” McCann continues. “The crowd went wild with admiration and inspiration. Tears were streaming down my face.
“We had just enjoyed the most perfect day and yet I knew we would soon go about our daily lives and forget what these young men and women had given up for us. Right then and there, I was determined that my wife and I would invite some of these heroes to come to Nantucket and make sure they got to do everything we did.”
McCann spent the next six months working with a newly-formed board of directors to establish the nonprofit that would come to be called Holidays For Heroes. “That first year, Memorial Day 2012, we brought four families to Nantucket,” he says. “Service people and their kids spent the weekend fishing, sailing and eating. We learned that it was a bigger and better idea than I had realized. Plenty of organizations do things for wounded heroes—but they’re geared to helping them rehabilitate, which means still more time away from their family.
“What we wanted was the exact opposite,” he explains. “For us, it was all about the family being together, the caregivers, the spouses, the small children.”
Hundreds of local inns, restaurants, attractions, and clubs have gotten behind the idea. Small businesses provide in-kind services like catering, plumbing, photography; others donate frequent flyer miles. “Everyone, down to the ice cream place where you have to stand in line for an hour, donates something,” McCann says.
Holidays for Heroes now welcomes four families to Nantucket on three different occasions each year: the weekends of Memorial Day, July 4th, and Sept. 11. The organization identifies those service people that might most benefit from such a break by visiting Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, as well as by teaming up with other nonprofits that work with wounded soldiers.
“When I meet these young men and women, I ask them what they want to do with the rest of their lives,” says McCann, a successful entrepreneur himself (he manufacturers and designs a variety of pet toy lines). “And I’ve been inspired by their stories.” The conversations have led to a second effort, The American Dream, which issues grants—and offers mentoring and business advice—to help veterans realize their aspirations. So far, seven soldiers have received funding to establish businesses as disparate as a fitness center and a home inspection business.
McCann knows he’s been fortunate in his own business efforts. “I should have been born in the 1800s,” he says. “I’ve always had that barn-raising mentality where working together achieves great things. If we all take care of just one piece of the puzzle, no matter how small, we all help improve the world. It makes a huge difference—and adds up an amazing puzzle.”