When Grant Evans founded Operation R&R in 2008, the Ohio-based chiropractor was hoping to rent out his empty Hilton Head Island home to local military families needing a vacation.
Six years later, Evans -- now a Hilton Head resident and chiropractor -- and Operation R&R have helped more than 1,200 families take vacations on the island. His charity has connected with more than 500 property owners, hotels, restaurants and businesses, ranging from bike rental companies to baby-sitters, to ensure memorable vacations.
The next group to enjoy a "nearly free" vacation, courtesy of Operation R&R and its donors, will be 18 mothers, each of whom has lost an only son or daughter serving on active duty.
"We don't have to worry about the cost because of Operation R&R, but most of us would never have been able to afford it without their help and the help of the homeowners," said Sue Peney, one of the group members. "There's a wonderful excitement. We're celebrating our lives and the lives of our children."
The mothers will stay May 11 to 18 in three houses provided by The Owner's Club at Hilton Head Island. They call themselves the "Gold Star One and Only," an offshoot of the Gold Star Mothers Club that provides support to mothers who lost children on active duty, Peney said.
Before this year, Operation R&R had only served military members stationed at nearby bases in South Carolina and Georgia.
Evans said he had asked the charity's leaders to look into inviting the families of soldiers killed in action. That led them to mothers like Peney, of LaGrange, Ga., and Janet Crane, of Columbus, Ga., who learned about Operation R&R after receiving a brochure about the charity at a Gold Star Moms brunch.
Peney, who volunteered at Fort Benning near her home, had a personal connection with the charity in close friend Holly Gifford, Operation R&R's director of reservations. Gifford oversaw the Army Community Services department at Fort Benning while Peney volunteered there, Peney said. In a deep depression after her son's death, she ended up living with Gifford for six months.
Peney's son Sgt. Jonathan Peney, an Army Ranger medic deployed from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, was killed June 1, 2010, in Afghanistan. He would have turned 23 in another month, she said.
"I called him Jonathan because it meant gift of God," she said. "I never thought that God was going to take that gift so soon."
The 18 mothers had met over social media and corresponded for about a year when someone brought up the idea of meeting, Peney said.
"One of the mothers said we should all come out to Kansas," she said. "And I was like 'Kansas in the winter, are you crazy?' I said we should all go to Hilton Head."
The mothers will travel from as far west as California and as far north as Montana. Three will fly for free, their airfare paid through the Gary Sinise Foundation, Peney said. Another will make the drive from Michigan, Evans added.
Most of them have never met.
Since almost all of the 18 mothers live far from the island, there has been some confusion over what Hilton Head is like. Evans said one mother said she would buy groceries in Savannah when she left the airport, concerned there might not be a supermarket on the island.
Although there are some events planned for the mothers, like a cooking demonstration at Michael Anthony's anda cruise courtesy of Vagabond Cruises, Peney said the week is mostly open.
"There's no agenda," she said. "We had structure at the memorials. We're going to call ourselves the 'Ladies of Hilton Head Island' that week. Some of the ladies want to go horseback riding, and another wants to go skydiving. I told her good luck, that I'd watch from the ground."
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.