Wounded Iraq Veteran receives smart home

To honor a brother who died on 9/11, Kathy Cunningham raised $500,000 to help someone else.

(Photo: Bob Bielk/Gannett NJ, Bob Bielk/Asbury Park Press)


For a few years after Donald Robertson Jr. perished in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, his sister Kathy Cunningham looked for a meaningful way to honor his memory.

Boy, did she find it.

The Spring Lake resident connected with the Tunnel to Towers 5K, an annual run through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel that traces the footsteps of Stephen Siller, a Brooklyn firefighter who died in the towers after racing through the tunnel on foot to get to the scene. Over the past decade, Cunningham has organized a fundraising team to participate in the run, and they have generated nearly $500,000 in donations — enough to build an adaptable "smart home" for a catastrophically injured veteran. It will bear her brother's name.

"To be able to turn a tragedy into a tribute is what it's all about — that good overcomes evil, and people never forget," Cunningham said. "A lot of these young men and women are coming back as triple amputees. It's a win-win that we can give them a better quality of life."

Kathy Cunningham, Spring Lake, honored as Spring Lake Citizen of the Year for raising $500,000 to build homes for disabled vets. She did it to honor the memory of her brother Donald Robertson (pictured), who died in the 9/11 tragedy—May 4, 2016 -Spring Lake, NJ.-Staff photographer/Bob Bielk/Asbury Park Press (Photo: Bob Bielk/Gannett NJ, Bob Bielk/Asbury Park Press)

For her initiative, Cunningham will be honored as Citizen of the Year by the Greater Spring Lake Chamber of Commerce on Thursday at the Spring Lake Bath and Tennis Club.

"She's always been a very outgoing, kind, community-minded person," said Dave D'Alonzo, a colleague at Chris Smith Realty who nominated her for the award. "I was just so impressed with her effort. It's an impossible number ($500,000), and she did it. It's really incredible."

The smart homes are a project of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. There are 46 so far — some finished, some under construction or in the planning stages.

"You should see them — the doors open on sensors; the cabinetry comes down; the driveways are heated," Cunningham said. "They operate from a laptop. It's an amazing home."

Kathy Cunningham, Spring Lake, honored as Spring Lake Citizen of the Year for raising $500,000 to build homes for disabled vets. She did it to honor the memory of her brother Donald Robertson, who died in the 9/11 tragedy—May 4, 2016 -Spring Lake, NJ.-Staff photographer/Bob Bielk/Asbury Park Press (Photo: Bob Bielk/Gannett NJ, Bob Bielk/Asbury Park Press)

She is not sure where the Donald Robertson Jr. home will be, but it's certain to be a point of pride for the many folks who pitched in. The Atlantic Club was heavily involved, and so was the lacrosse community. Donald played lacrosse in high school and college, and all four of Kathy's children excelled in the sport — Sean, Patrick and Conor at Christian Brothers Academy, and Kaitlyn at Red Bank Catholic. All of them have worn No. 26, the same number Donald wore.

"It's a great way to keep his spirit and energy alive," Cunningham said.

Of the 500 people on her fundraising team, "Team Shamrock," more than 200 have a lacrosse connection. That includes the entire men's and women's programs at Manhattan College, where Kaitlyn currently plays.

Manasquan High School boys lacrosse coach Sean Cunningham (Photo: File photo)

"Lacrosse is a very tight-knit, small, niche community," said Sean Cunningham, who is the head coach of Manasquan High School's boys team. "To be able to have a bunch of lacrosse players involved in this, it's special."

He's not surprised his mother pulled everyone together.

"As with everything in her life, she does it big, and includes a lot of people," Sean said. "It doesn't shock me how much she's been able to raise, but having done the run and having met the guys who it affects personally and how they're taken care of, it's a wonderful thing to watch."

To join Team Shamrock or contribute to its next campaign, visit www.crowdrise.com/team-shamrock.

Staff Writer Jerry Carino: jcarino@gannettnj.com


CITIZEN OF THE YEAR:

Each year the Citizen of the Year Chamber Committee recognizes individuals from the Greater Spring Lake area who, through their personal efforts, have displayed extraordinary service and leadership skills in the quality of life in the community.