5 Questions with Jay Van Vechten, co-founder of Boating and Beach Bash for People with Disabilities

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 Tell us about yourself and how you came up with Boating and Beach Bash for People with Disabilities.

The Bash had existed in a different format, as an annual picnic for people living in group homes. I was serving on the City’s Disability Advisory Board. Our chairman was Shawn Friedkin of Stand Among Friends. I told Shawn I had an idea for how the event could be broadened and expanded by adding boats and opening it to all people with disabilities living in Boca versus the previous attendees, who were only people living in group homes. Shawn and I met with Mayor Susan Whelchel. She loved the idea, and we were off and running. Three hundred and fifty people attended the first event in 2009.

 The 12th Annual Boating & Beach Bash for People with Disabilities returns on March 1. Tell us about the event.

On Sunday, March 1, the nation’s largest, free, one-day event for people with disabilities, both seen and unseen, will welcome more than 6,000 guests to Spanish River Park.

Every element of the Boating & Beach Bash for People with Disabilities is designed to welcome those with disabilities, their family members and their caregivers. Every year, the Bash has grown with new features and attractions. There is literally something for everyone: boat rides, beach access, sporting events, ponies for petting, costumed action heroes, local entertainment, wheelchair yoga, miniature train rides, a Kids Fun Zone, food, music, a vendors’ row, and dance parties. New this year, we will offer yoga and surfing lessons at 10 a.m. on the beach with Shellie and Sam Chiet.

  We heard some celebrities will be in attendance. Can you tell us who?

Coming back for her third year with us will be singer Kechi Okwuchi, a Nigerian-American singer and motivational speaker. She was one of two survivors of the 107 passengers aboard Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145, which crashed in Nigeria in 2005. Kechi suffered severe third-degree burns all over her body. To date, she has endured more than 100 surgeries. A finalist on the 12th season of America’s Got Talent in 2017, and in the 2019 AGT’s Champions rendition, Okwuchi headlined the Bash in 2018 and 2019.

Also returning for 2020 is Rion Paige, a finalist on the X Factor. A Jacksonville native, who now lives in Nashville, Paige was born with a rare condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which caused permanent damage to her arms, resulting in her hands being in a fixed, bent position. A country-and-western musician, Paige was mentored on the X Factor by Demi Lovato.

We are extremely excited that Kellye Cash is joining our national lineup. Cash is a former Miss America and niece of country super star Johnny Cash. Known for her extraordinary singing voice and bigger than life personality, Cash will perform the National Anthem.

 What is new at this year’s bash?

In addition to the fleet of yachts and boats, manned by volunteer captains, the Freedom Boat Club will provide extra pontoon boats. One of our biggest draws, the free boat rides along the Intracoastal Waterway are offered the entire length of the event, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

These pontoon boats are a huge game changer in our efforts to get as many people with disabilities as possible out onto the water. Boarding and disembarking will be greatly eased for those with mobility challenges. It will cut down on dock turnaround time, it will allow more people to get on each boat, and it promises to make Captain Tyler’s job a bit easier, as he directs all operations that day. We’re blessed indeed to be partnering with such kind people.

Also, a trolley shuttle and a second Catabello Express mini-train – which is ADA-accessible – will be added to assist guests from the parking lot to the Bash area. The trolley and Express mini-train will run continuously during the entire duration of the event until 3:30 p.m.

We will also have new amenities for guests on the autism spectrum. Thanks to a $3,500 grant from Autism Speaks, South Florida chapter, the Bash will add amenities to be more accessible to those on the autism spectrum. Amenities will include “Quiet Comfort/Break” zones and free “comfort supplies,” such as ear plugs, sensory toys and sunglasses for guests. The grant will also allow for the purchase of developmental play items and crafts for the Bash’s Kids Zone.

 What is the most rewarding part about putting on the annual bash?

For me, the most rewarding part about putting on the Bash are the smiles we generate, the laughter we hear and the stories that we’re told by grateful family members.  My favorite story of the 2019 Bash was a dad who said how much he and his family love the event. When pressed, he said, “It is the one day a year our son feels normal.”

There’s no question that this event fills my heart with joy. It has given my wife, Lowell, and I something meaningful to do in our golden years. Frankly, I think the Bash keeps us younger in my ways that many of our contemporaries – people our age who feel unneeded and inconsequential in their retirement years. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more needed, nor have I ever worked harder than I do on this event. The same is true for Lowell, my bride. We love it. And we’re having a ball helping people with special needs find true joy and the opportunity to share a day of laughter with their family members and caregivers.