Baldwinite Jessica Eckels recently wondered how she could help change the world for the better, and thought of Tommy Maher.
Maher, of South Hempstead, has spent the past year visiting sites of mass shootings and spreading acts of kindness, starting with Las Vegas after the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting at the Route 91 Harvest County Music Festival, at which 58 people were killed.
“He spends his days paying it forward,” Eckels said. “I just wanted to do something nice for him.” She knew she wanted to help Maher, but she didn’t know how at first. Then, she had an idea to hold a fundraiser for Maher so he could continue to travel the country and touch people’s hearts.
The Country for a Cause fundraiser, which will take place Feb. 8 at O’Connell Gardens in Oceanside, has already garnered attention from Route 91 survivors from near and far. Jasara Lauren, a survivor from California, messaged Eckels on Facebook to request tickets. “I just went back to work after being off for a year, and I am not going to miss this benefit,” Lauren said.
An Island Park couple who were also at the festival attend as well, Eckels said.
Maher, a retired New York City sanitation worker and commissioner of the South Hempstead Fire Department, uses his own money to drive to communities where mass shootings have occurred and spread kindness by paying for meals or handing out flowers.
When Eckels contacted him about the fundraiser, he said, he was at a crossroads. Tired and drained at times from his trips, he had considered stopping. “All of a sudden, I get a message from her, and I’m like, Wow, I’ve got to keep going,” he said.
Eckels said that while she was pleased by the outpouring of support, she was not surprised by it. “The Route 91 community has this big following on social media,” she said. “They all know who [Maher] is.”
Baldwinite Kevin Smith, who has known Maher for 25 years and will emcee Country for a Cause, said he knew from Day One that the event would be a success. “Jess told me she just hoped she’d get enough people,” he recalled. “I said, ‘You’re going to get more than enough people.’”
Maher said he is touched that so many people are interested in coming to Oceanside to help his cause. “It just shows you how you really don’t understand how you impact some people by what you’re doing,” he said.
Smith and Maher often interact with each other — both are members of their community’s fire department and they play football together. “Lately, though, I’ve just been a follower and admirer of his for all the work he’s done,” Smith said. “What he does is absolutely amazing.”
Southbound LI, a country music cover band, will perform at the event, which will also include line dancing, a buffet dinner and drinks. Tickets are $67 per person and can be purchased at bit.ly/2QVpxtt.
Following the Route 91 shooting, Maher drove a van sporting the words “Pay it Forward” across the country with his daughter, Kelli, a South Side High School student, and her friend Aline. The trio took 58 bracelets — each with a victim’s name on it — with them, as well as a 59th in honor of the first responders and survivors. After each good deed, they passed out a bracelet, which the recipient was asked to give to someone else after performing a kind act.
Maher visited Pittsburgh earlier this month to honor the 11 people killed at the Tree of Life Congregation. Showing up unannounced, he stopped off at a dry cleaner to pay for some tickets. One ticket he paid showed that the clothes were dropped off on Sept. 25, which is Maher’s birthday. “It was there a long time,” he noted. “As I’m paying it, the guy walks in the door to pick it up.” He was a firefighter.
The next day he went to drop off a sign at the synagogue, which said, “Believe there’s good in the world. Be the good.” Planning to just drop it off at the memorial outside the temple, he stumbled upon the rabbi’s wife. “The stuff that happens to me time and time again is incredible,” Maher said, adding that he doesn’t believe in coincidences.
Maher said each time he hears about another mass shooting, he feels heartbroken, confused and discouraged. “A lot of things just go through my head,” he said, “and I just know that I’m going to show up eventually in those spots.”
Maher plans to visit Thousands Oaks, Calif., where a gunman killed 12 people at Borderline Bar & Grill on Nov. 7, after Thanksgiving. Some of the victims and survivors of that shooting had been at the Route 91 festival, according to published reports. Maher noted he couldn’t do what he does without the support of his wife, Cindy.
“The two biggest acts of kindness don’t cost anything, and that’s understanding and forgiveness,” Maher said. “If we could all try and focus on that about each other, people would be a lot better.”
Smith said he hoped Country for a Cause would not only succeed in raising money for Maher, but also in showing that people are capable of kindness in the worst of times. “We can show the good in people,” he said.
For Eckels, it’s about keeping Maher’s campaign going. “I want to keep what he’s doing alive,” she said.