Participants prepare for some fun on the water
during a previous Boating and Beach Bash at Spanish River Park.
By Janis Fontaine
If you have a physical or intellectual disability — or if you love and care for someone who does — tie up your tennis shoes and slather on the sunscreen! The seventh annual Boca Raton Boating and Beach Bash takes place on March 21 at Spanish River Park and it’s just for you.
The Bash is the nation’s biggest, most ambitious free event for kids and adults who have physical and/or intellectual disabilities, “seen and unseen,” founder and executive director Jay Van Vechten said.
It’s also a labor of love for Van Vechten. In 2001, the successful PR executive was researching what it was like to live with a disability for Johnson & Johnson when he slipped and fell in a hotel bathroom, shattering several vertebra, and badly damaging his hips and knees.
He can walk with a cane now, and suffers chronic pain, but Van Vechten, 70, and his event are thriving. Attendance peaked in 2013 when the Bash’s 500 volunteers entertained 5,500 guests. Van Vechten is expecting 6,000 this year.
Children and adult guests and their caregivers will enjoy food, live music, games, arts and crafts and best of all, boat rides on one of the flotilla of more than 30 private yachts donated for the day by members of Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club in Boca Raton.
Another highlight: interacting with therapeutic animals, including miniature therapy ponies and service dogs, with an affinity for people with challenges.
The Bash started in 2009, and was sponsored by the city of Boca Raton until 2012, when the city backed off (it still waives park admission) and Van Vechten took over, founding the American Disabilities Foundation Inc., the parent nonprofit of the Bash.
“We receive no financial support from the city, county or state, and there are no Fortune 500 companies writing us big checks — although there should be,” Van Vechten said.
The Bash pays no salaries and has no overhead. Everyone working on the event volunteers their time, and that include dozens of local high school students who “do the heavy lifting,” as well as members of the Miami Dolphins. Gary Susser, an attorney and disability advocate, runs the food service. His team, assisted by chefs from Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club, will plate more than 6,000 meals in about four hours.
“This is a grassroots, hands-on event,” Van Vechten said, “and it addresses a need that has never been addressed before. We talk about research and cures, but we don’t talk about fun. Some guests are severely disabled people, people you’ll never see at the mall or the movies. This is a day of fun just for them and their caregivers.”
Experts estimate that one in five Americans has a disability, but in Palm Beach County, that number is estimated at one in four. Some of them have “unseen” disabilities, including heart disease, cystic fibrosis, seizure disorders, mental illness, even cancer.
And the pool of disabled is still expanding. In 2012, the Bash connected with the Wounded Warriors in Action, and they were able to invite 400 Purple Heart recipients living in the Greater South Florida area. Most of the guests come from South Florida, from the Treasure Coast to Miami-Dade, but some guests travel from Naples and Orlando for this one-of-a-kind event.
“Lowell, my wife and life partner, recently told me, ‘Working with you on this event has filled my heart in ways I never imagined, and I’m so grateful.’ I almost drove the car off the road!” Van Vechten laughs.
“I just love what it brings into our lives,” Lowell Van Vechten said. “Everything else seems inconsequential in comparison.”
Her husband agrees. “It surprises me every year how everyone comes together. I believe God is shining on
If You Go
What: The Boating and Beach Bash for People with Disabilities, a day of boat rides, food, music, games, arts and crafts
When: 10 am-3 pm March 21
Where: Spanish River Park, 3100 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton.
Info: 715-2622; boatingbeachbash.com.