The Virginia Gentlemen

by Roberta T. Vowell
photography by Eric Lusher

At first, they were just a bunch of guys.
Young guys – late 20s, early 30s – who had settled into careers, bought houses, started families. At the core were seven guys, Virginia Beach natives who had grown up together, men with traditional Tidewater names like Malbon, Yancey, Canada. They brought in new friends, and the group faithfully gathered on Tuesday nights for a healthy dose of man-time.

Then the guys decided to become more than men. They became gentlemen – Virginia Gentlemen, a name they adopted when the group evolved from loosely knit social group to fine-tuned charity fund-raising machine. In five years they’ve raised more than $5 million, starting with house parties and now organizing an annual walk and beach party that attracts 10,000 money-raising marchers. They’ve funded medical research, bought a van to transport patients, and built a way-cool beach playground accessible to disabled kids. Next up: a 20-acre adventure camp with wake-boarding and a ropes course for kids and veterans with disabilities.

“There was so much energy and potential in the group, we started to think about what we could do for the community,” says Ross Vierra, chairman of the Gentlemen board and a construction company owner. “We got together to figure out what our cause would be. A lot of the guys have a passion for the environment, and helping kids and older people. Timing being what it is, our cause came to us.”

Chris Thompson, one of the Beach natives in the group, was facing a family crisis. His older brother, Josh, had been diagnosed with ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It’s more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, while the current generation is probably more familiar with it as the foe of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

Josh Thompson was 34 then, a surfing, beach-loving father. He and his wife, Joy, had one young son and were expecting a second any moment. His first symptom: He couldn’t grip a handball. Suddenly, he was fighting a disease that attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading to paralysis and eventual death. There is no known cure.

To the local guys, Josh Thompson was more than just a friend’s brother.  He’d been the group’s cool big brother.

“I always looked up to Josh,’’ says George Powell, who was in the same school grade as Chris Thompson. “Most big brothers would beat the tar out of the little brothers and their friends. He wasn’t like that. I mean, he could have been a jerk. He was a jock, so athletic, so good-looking, so popular. He always lit up a room.’’

The Virginia Gentlemen met with the regional ALS Association and, Vierra says, asked, “What do you need?’’

The answer was a transport van, to ferry patients from home to doctors.

The first event was a Halloween party, held in 2007 at the home of member Josh Canada.

“We just called our friends and said, ‘Come and party and help,’ ” Vierra says.

That party raised $2,000.

Their next event was more ambitious, a Super Bowl party in 2008 at a restaurant. The group had found more friends: 500 people attended, donating $14,000.

The van was a go, and so were the Virginia Gentlemen.

The group decided to aim higher. The regional ALS Association already had an annual event, a walk at Norfolk Botanical Garden. The Virginia Gentlemen asked if they could take it on, and by the way, could they move it to the Boardwalk?

“We wanted to stay close to our roots,” Vierra says. “Josh’s family had such a big impact on the Beach.’’

Yep, Josh Thompson’s father is Bruce Thompson, the Beach developer perhaps best known for the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront and surrounding 31st Street projects. He helps the group by providing a tiny office space and rather nice venues for parties and such.

The group also needed the Oceanfront to handle the crowd; 6,000 people signed on, compared to 1,000 walkers at the gardens.

That first event, the JT Walk and Beach Party, raised $1.2 million. That money was donated to the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins University and ALS researchers at Emory University and Eastern Virginia Medical School.

“It was just enormous,’’ says Cathy Easter, director of philanthropy for the ALS Association’s D.C., Maryland and Virginia chapter. “Just incredible.’’ The JT Walk team, she says, was the largest single-day money-raising team in history for the ALS Association.

How do the Gentlemen amass all those bucks? Well, the fundraising is like a benevolent pyramid scheme. The Gents appoint 10 team managers, who each recruit 10 team captains, who then recruit 10 walkers. Each walker must raise $200.

Their 2009 project was more personal, if no less worthy. Bruce Thompson was at the Oceanfront, as usual, and saw a child in a wheelchair looking out at the sand and surf, so close but so totally out of reach.

The Gentlemen conferred with Josh Thompson, who by then was also in a wheelchair and who spoke of his longing to take his own boys to the beach.

A goal was set. The crew would build a 15,000-square-foot playground on the sand. The city donated the property at First Street, and in return, the Gentlemen donated the playground back to the city, complete with a $400,000 endowment for continuing maintenance.

Such a playground needed a network of double-wide ramps so the kids could slide past one another on the way to the fun. It needed sturdy swinging platforms to wheel onto and swoop into the air. It needed modified wheelchairs with mongo puffy tires to get children right down to the surf. It needed slides and jungle gyms, periscopes at sitting height and shaded areas and, specially, benches for parents to sit and watch their children play.

The Army Corps of Engineers helped make it hurricane-resistant, and Tom Adams, a Gentleman and builder, unleashed his crews and unskilled but enthusiastic volunteers.

It was christened in May 2010, JT’s Grommet Island Beach Park & Playground for EveryBODY.  JT, of course, for Josh Thompson. “Grommet” is surfer slang for little dudes, the children surfers. In a touch of personal sentiment, the group added a bronze statue of an older boy with an arm draped loosely over the shoulders of younger boy. They hold surfboards, looking out to sea.

Josh was eventually able to visit Grommet Island with his family. That day, he also saw his son’s T-ball game.

Josh told his father it was the happiest day of his life.

As of September, the group had donated $800,000 to the ALS Association, Easter says. The Gentlemen’s donations during the economic downturn have made all the difference for ALS patients here.

“Because of their support, our organization has been able to maintain services at a time when many nonprofits were hurting,’’ she says. “We would have had to cut back drastically.’’

The donations are surely welcome, she says, but she also loves to see that the Gentlemen aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, building ramps for ALS patients and constructing the beach playground.

There are now 15 Virginia Gentlemen, plus a paid staffer. Their current project is JT’s Grommet INland Adventure Park & Camp for EveryBODY.

It will be  big – about 20 acres – and will look like the summer camp we all wish we’d attended. In the plans, there’s a lake, complete with fishing pier, kayaking, and an amazing system of cables that zips disabled board-riders over and through the water in an authentic wake-boarding experience.

There are cabins, a gym, a playing field, a wellness center and an outdoor café. But Gentlemen are still boys at heart, and the feature they talk about is the huge ropes course, styled around the sort of Outward Bound challenges that boost self-esteem and teach teamwork. The plan includes 100 stations on the course, all of them accessible to people with
disabilities.

That feature should appeal to the newest group the Gentlemen serve, military and police veterans who have been wounded, and their families.

Over the years, the Gentlemen have expanded their reach from ALS to include helping people with all forms of disability. Reaching out to two groups, Wounded Warriors and Families of Fallen Heroes, was the next logical step.

“This is a place where veterans and others can go and bond and find their inner strength,” Vierra says. “It will be set up so that they can stay a day or a weekend, and get help and counseling. Whatever they need.”

They plan to break ground on a site in Virginia Beach in 2013. It will cost between $15 and $20 million.

It’s just the sort of place Josh Thompson would love, says his wife, Joy. Josh is totally paralyzed now, and communicates by blinking. He lives at home with her and their energetic sons, now ages 5 and 4, and likes to hear about the good works under way in his name.

“It’s important for him to know that he’s not forgotten,” she says. “But more important is that they’re not just sitting around thinking about him, that they come out and gather, wishing him well and doing something to make it better for others.”