As a kid growing up surfing in Long Beach, New York, Tommy Brull (middle) developed a tremendous empathy for those with special needs working as volunteer and counselor at Camp ANCHOR, an organization dedicated to “Answering the Needs of Citizens with Handicaps through Organized Recreation.” Photo courtesy of Martin Brull

Losing a brother is one of the hardest things anyone can endure, especially when he’s your best friend. For Martin Brull, a physical therapist from Rockville Centre, NY, dealing with the loss of his brother, Tommy, who tragically passed at the age of 23, meant paddling out alone into the wintry waters off Long Beach, where he and his brother spent their youth. He and Tommy surfed through the seasons together and worked as counselors at Camp ANCHOR, an organization that works with special needs-children, sharing the experience of riding a wave.

Hoping to pay tribute to his late brother, Martin set out to form a group that would carry on Tommy’s remarkable compassion and empathy for children with special needs. After close to a decade, the Tommy Brull Foundation has raised nearly half-a-million dollars, almost all of it for Camp ANCHOR, holding annual benefit concerts called the “Shine A Light” Music Series that have drawn the likes of cult surf/music heroes Tom Curren and Andrew Kidman, and bands like Phosphorescent, Lucero, Dear Tick, and The War On Drugs. We chatted with Martin Brull about the good he and the foundation have done in his late brother’s name.

Your brother made an impression on a lot of people in his short life. Tell me about Tommy. What was he like?

He was my best friend growing up, a passionate guy with strong convictions. Our brother Jack taught us to surf in the early-’80s, on his custom Bunger mid-length, this single fin Lightning Bolt replica. We surfed in Long Beach while we were kids, mostly in the summer, but we got more serious after high school, surfing year-round. Tommy was really into literature, writing, and art; but especially music and surfing. That was our lives: surfing and going to shows, seeing bands.

How did you two become such a big part of the Long Beach surfing community?

Tommy was 17 months younger than me. Being that we were so close in age, we had a big, connected group of friends that mostly revolved around Camp ANCHOR [Answering the Needs of Citizens with Handicaps through Organized Recreation], at Lido Beach. It’s a camp that’s been around now for 50 years and is right on the ocean, designed for children with special needs, from as young as five years old and into adulthood. We started volunteering there when we were 14, and then later we worked there as counselors. Our core group of friends, and so many local surfers, grew up working together. It’s where the idea for the foundation came from, when Tommy passed away.

Each summer, the Tommy Brull Foundation works with Camp ANCHOR getting hundreds of campers in the water. Photo courtesy of Martin Brull

How old was Tommy when he passed away? What happened?

He died when he was 23, on Christmas Eve, 1999. It was always referred to just as an “accident,” but we really don’t know what happened. We have a feeling that he was messing around on the Williamsburg Bridge [in New York City]. Someone came to the police, saying, “My friend’s hurt!” When they went to check on the report, whomever the person Tommy was with ran away, so we don’t really know the full story. There is a section of the bridge over Delancey Street with easy access to climb up, and there was a beautiful view of the city. I think they were messing around over there and he fell off.

Personally, the way I grieved was by going out and surfing by myself in the middle of winter. I was always down at the beach. It was my release, going in the water a lot and being alone.

Spending time with the guys who knew your brother and surfed with him must have helped, too.

Absolutely. We had a pretty tight-knit group of friends from surfing. The guys from uNsound, Dave Juan and Mike Nelson, helped us by planning a paddle-out for Tommy. They’ve been amazing to us over the years.

It also was helpful being able to share stories about Tommy with those who knew him, because the stories shine a light on the kind of person Tommy was. I remember one time, Tommy and I had an argument and he got all pissed off at me, because he felt I was coming down on him for something. We went out in some big surf in Long Beach, at Laurelton [Boulevard]. Tommy was a skinny dude. He would get caught in currents and drift down the beach faster than anyone I ever knew. So I was paddling with the current, trying to catch up with him, just to be next to him while we’re surfing. He eventually recognized me doing that, and I guess realized that I was looking out for him. He actually wrote a poem about that day and gave it to me years later, on the Christmas before he died. The poem’s inscribed on a bench on the boardwalk at Laurelton Blvd now.

When did you start the foundation in Tommy’s name?

We began in 2008 when my wife, Shara, came up with the idea for starting something in his memory, in a way that Tommy would be proud of. We’d grown up and met all our friends at Camp ANCHOR, working with kids with special needs. Our sister Lauren went on to be a Special Ed. teacher; my brother Jack is a school psychologist; I’m a physical therapist; and our friend Keith Lucchesi is a Special Ed. teacher, as well. We saw the common role that not just service to those with special needs, but the role that the camp itself played in our lives. The mission statement ended up being this: we wanted to help improve the quality of life of children with special needs, including mental, emotional and physical challenges. We also wanted to sponsor organizations that were dedicated to the special-needs community through benefits and fundraisers.

How’d the Shine A Light Music Series come about?

Tommy loved music, and we used to go to shows constantly. So I ended up putting on shows. I found bands that Tommy either liked, or would of liked if he’d had the chance to hear them. We’ve had Deer Tick, The War On Drugs, Luna, Dean Warham of Galaxy 500 – they have a song in Litmus, and were Tommy’s favorite band of all time.

Tommy and I grew up watching Litmus. We used to watch it religiously. I later became friends with Andrew Kidman, and he played our first benefit in 2008. He played this song from Litmus, “Riding The Wind,” at the show. He told me afterward that he hadn’t played it in long time. It held a special meaning to him.

The shows have been amazing. Since 2008, we’ve raised almost 400,000 dollars, coming up on half-a-million pretty soon.

Tom Curren playing at one of Tommy Brull Foundation’s “Shine A Light” Music Series events. Photo courtesy of Martin Brull

Are there any other programs you work with?

We’ve worked with so many organizations and individuals. We usually like to pick three to five each benefit. But we’ve always given to Camp ANCHOR. Since we started, we’ve raised over 100,000 dollars for them. They dedicated a gymnasium and a new building to my brother. We were able to purchase audio and video equipment for their whole drama program. We sponsor various drama organizations, wheelchair basketball teams.

And the big thing, we’ve started a surf camp that runs six weeks, over the summer, every single day. This summer we took 350 kids to surf at least twice. We call it the Tommy Brull Surf Program, but it’s the surf part of Camp ANCHOR, basically. Keith Lucchesi, a friend of Tommy’s and member of the foundation, still works at ANCHOR and is able to oversee the day-to-day operation of the surf program.

We are getting kids to fully surf on their own, paddling into waves by themselves, where some of the kids like to sit on their boards backwards and simply enjoy putting their hands in the water. As long as they’re having fun.

So what would your brother think of all this good that’s been done in his name?

I think that Tommy would have a big smile on his face. All the things we have done to remember him – the surf camp, the concerts, all of it. I think he would be pretty stoked, seeing how he’s been remembered, his portrayal to people who weren’t lucky enough to know him like we did.

Tommy Brull. Photo courtesy of Martin Brull