NORFOLK — Backpacks. Bibles. Birthday cakes. You name it, Tommy Maher has provided it for strangers.
Since the two-month anniversary of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Maher and a few other members of his organization, the Honor Network, have been traveling around the community performing random acts of kindness.
They are doing it in memory of the 12 killed at the city’s municipal complex on May 31. Four were also injured that day before police killed the gunman in a shootout.
A $50 tip for a server at the Oceanfront’s Chix on the Beach was to honor Michelle “Missy” Langer, who loved the beach.
A $100 gift card for that same restaurant was given to a Navy veteran and his wife in memory of Robert “Bobby” Williams, who also served in the Navy.
A young boy received his first Bible — and in it $100 — to memorialize Keith Cox, who was a dedicated member of the New Hope Baptist Church.
That doesn’t even begin to cover all the gifts given by the Honor Network in Virginia Beach over just a few days. And Maher said he and his wife pay for the majority of these acts of kindness out of their own pockets.
“We are not independently wealthy by any means,” he said. “We believe it’s an investment in humanity.”
In fact, he said, his family’s generosity has left them with thousands of dollars of debt. He’s organized fundraisers to support his work, but when it comes to human empathy, money is no object.
Maher, a Long Island fire commissioner, said he was first inspired to make a change on Sept. 11, 2001. He lost a friend from his firehouse as a result of the terrorist attack, but said he was inspired after witnessing kindness and generosity during the recovery efforts.
“I didn’t know when, I didn’t know how, but I knew after that I wanted to do something to make a difference,” he said.
When 58 people were killed in the Las Vegas shooting 16 years later, Maher started the Honor Network. He drove 9,500 miles in 18 days and then flew to Alaska, stopping in the hometowns of every victim along the way.
Maher has since been to Parkland, Fla.; Santa Fe, Texas; Pittsburgh; Thousand Oaks, Calif., and more in the wakes of various mass shootings.
“They just kept happening, and I just kept driving,” he said.
The 52-year-old never starts with a specific plan in mind. He waits two months or so to allow communities time to grieve, then drives to town, occasionally with a few other volunteers in tow. He trusts his gut to tell him where to stop.
In Virginia Beach, he’s found more success than ever.
“The people here are so receptive to it, more than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I think that when nice things happen to people now, they’re becoming less suspicious and more receptive to welcoming it.”
At one of their stops, The Bee and The Biscuit restaurant in Pungo, Maher and his friends enjoyed their meals, asked for the manager, and promptly handed her $500.
The money was used to pay the bills of 12 customers, each of whom were given an Honor Network rubber bracelet and a card with a photo of the person each meal was paid to honor. The restaurant posted about the encounter on Facebook, and it accumulated more than 1,000 comments and has been shared nearly 4,700 times.
The Honor Network headed out of town last Sunday, but Maher said he hopes their visit has lasting effects.
“Everyone is born with the ability to care for each other. Let’s not wait for tragedy to do that,” he said.