189 Dead Shows and Thousands of Miles Hiked Later – Tom Kennedy Shows Us the Best Side of Ourselves

by Eric Singleton

Tom Kennedy personifies the spirit of what it means to be part of our community of Grateful Dead fans, and is an example for us all. I know when Tom reads this he will be humbled because that’s just the kind of guy he is, but his story needs to be told and we are proud to tell it.

Tom Kennedy, left, assisting rescue group

Tom grew up in Maywood, New Jersey and worked in the mattress industry for thirty-five years. He has sold mattresses and quality bedding from California to New Jersey, and travelled the country training others on the virtues of a good nights sleep, and specifically, while they were in vogue, the virtues of waterbeds.  

One day, over dinner with his friend Leo Walker, at the Holiday Inn in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, Tom and Leo were discussing their shared passion for hiking and the wilderness when the conversation turned to how the two could make a difference in the world and “pay it forward”. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could give back somehow with hiking?” the two thought…and an idea was born that instant. Hike for Mental Health was founded with Leo as president, and Tom as vice president, and the rest as they say, is history.

Thousands of hiked miles and dozens of hikes later, the organization has grown and continues to accomplish its mission: “a world in which everyone, including those who suffer from mental illness, can find the simple joy of living.”

In 2014, Tom bid farewell to the mattress industry, and he and Leo moved to Texas. They joined Nancy Kozanecki and the trio lives in Friendswood. All three are key drivers of Hike for Mental Health, and this is where our story begins:

JerryGarciaCollection:

We heard about the great stuff you were doing down there to help Hurricane Harvey victims – tell us what the scene looked like and how you got involved.

Tom:

I knew that Harvey was going to be a big deal, but the morning after it hit I stepped out into our front yard and there was no flood, so for a moment I thought it might not be as bad as we all feared. My neighbor came out and I said the same to him. “Have you seen Kroger’s?!” he said. I told him I hadn’t and would head over immediately to see what was going on and if I could help.

JerryGarciaCollection:

How far away is Kroger’s from where your house is?

Tom:

It is only two blocks away. That’s what blew my mind. I went over there and the minute I arrived the flooding was devastating. The water depth was so deep it covered a commercial dump truck, whole cars were totally submerged so you could only see the faint outline of the roof. You really couldn’t see anything but water everywhere.

JerryGarciaCollection:

What did you do once you started to assimilate the whole situation?

Tom:

I started helping to launch rescue boats in the Kroger parking lot. It was crazy, there was so much water Kroger’s parking lot became a virtual boat launch site. I went out three times on search and rescue missions. It was intense. I won’t forget it.

JerryGarciaCollection:

Can you tell us what you saw and what was happening once you moved forward on the actual rescue missions?

Tom:

Yeah. I think the thing that sticks in my mind and heart is seeing the faces. The fear. Seeing the kids with fear all over their faces. The pets too – dogs just looking confused and scared, and the elderly looking exhausted.   I keep thinking about that. There was just mayhem in so many ways, and all of us, everyone, trying to help each other. It wasn’t until Tuesday that I saw any official aid come in. Tuesday the Coast Guard showed up.

There was one guy who came by on his boat, and wondered where to tie up. I told him to tie his boat to the Wendy’s sign. So crazy – that was the depth of the water – tie up to the Wendy’s sign! Can you imagine? You couldn’t even see half the cars anymore, but there was the sign poking out of the water!

There was a family huddled under a gas station awning, all of them afraid and wet and cold. I went back to bring them to our place, but by the time I returned they were gone. I found out later a church team had rescued them.

There were so many looking dazed – carrying Tupperware containers with family pictures and the things that matter most, under their arms. One man told me they taped the most important things his family had, pictures and so on, to the top of the refrigerator and hoped it would be there when they came back. It was hard to fight back the tears during some of it.

Friendswood

JerryGarciaCollection:

Thank you for sharing what you saw and the detail of how you felt. We can’t imagine what its been like or what we would feel in such a situation.

Tom:

It would be impossible to imagine it. It’s like when you see amazing mountains on a hike, or an amazing sunset. You try to explain it to your friends but no photo can do it justice – you have to be there. I think Harvey is like that – but in a terrible way.

JerryGarciaCollection:

How did you and your home fare during all this?

Tom:

We had our roof ripped open in a few places, and as a result the house flooded. Not deep, but enough to cause damage. I was on “towel duty” for 20 hours straight as we tried to keep up with the water coming in, constantly drying the towels and running back over to the leaks. Nancy, who is an engineer by trade, fashioned tarps to cover the holes in the roof.

JerryGarciaCollection:

It is Friday as we are talking to you – how are things now?

Tom:

It’s shocking really. The water has gone down so much it’s hard to believe. Its like: where did it all go? The truck I spoke of earlier is now visible. The cars are visible. Many of the roads are back open. It’s a very hard thing to grasp. So much water and destruction and the water is almost gone here in Friendswood. I am sure there are parts of Houston where the water levels are still high, but here at least it has subsided. We are lucky for that.

JerryGarciaCollection:

After all you have seen and done in the last several days, what words would you want to share with our community and anyone else who reads this?

Tom:

Everyone came together here – days before any official help arrived. The storm brought out the best in all of us in terms of reaching out to help our neighbors. Our friend who owns Stefano’s Pizza in Friendswood has been delivering free pizzas to everyone he can, with donations coming in to keep on making them. Despite the horrors of the storm and its aftermath, we were all there for each other. I think that’s positive and would want people to know that.

JerryGarciaCollection:

Well said. What’s next for Tom Kennedy?

Tom:

Today I will walk through the neighborhood and see where I can help my neighbors.  We won’t stop walking around and helping until things are right again.

JerryGarciaCollection:

You can check out “Hike for Mental Health” on the web at:

https://www.hikeformentalhealth.org and see all the great work Tom and the team are doing, and learn how to participate.

Call Stefano's and tell them they rock - just to keep the vibes flowing: 281-992-2233!

Let’s continue to send positive energy Tom’s way and to all who are struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey…

Tom Kennedy in drier times, Hiking for Mental Health

 

 




Eric Singleton
Eric Singleton

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