By: Jan Engoren
South Florida’s annual Boating & Beach Bash for People with Disabilities celebrated its 12th year on March 1 at the Spanish River Park in Boca Raton.
The largest, free, fun-day in America for children, adults and veterans with physical and/or intellectual challenges, their families and caregivers, the event traditionally hosts up to 6,000 attendees, according to the organizers of the event.
Founded by Boca resident, Jay Van Vechten, 75, and his wife, Lowell, Van Vechten could only say, “Holy Shmoley,” when asked how he feels about this year’s event, which was attended by city officials including Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer, Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers and City Commissioners.
Kellye Cash, niece of Johnny Cash, a former Miss America and mother of a hearing-impaired son, kicked off the festivities with the National Anthem.
Van Vechten says he founded the event when his friends began retiring and he was looking for something to do.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to do this,” he said. “While there are many programs in place for people with disabilities, none are fun. Where’s the fun? I wanted to create a fun event.”
“I don’t take any salary and we have an all-volunteer crew, which makes this so miraculous,” says Van Vechten.
Judging by the hundreds of people milling about listening to music, sampling the food and lining up for boat rides, Van Vechten has succeeded in his mission.
New this year were additional pontoon boats provided by the Freedom Boat Club and additional amenities for guests on the autism spectrum thanks to a $3,500 grant from Autism Speaks, South Florida chapter, including “Quiet Comfort/Break” zones and free “comfort supplies,” such as ear plugs, sensory toys and sunglasses.
Other activities included yoga/surf classes, therapy dogs, boat rides, special access to the beach and ocean with Mobi Mats, allowing wheelchairs on the sand, a Kids Fun Zone, therapy workshops led by trained specialists, wheelchair yoga and dance parties.
Returning entertainers included America’s Got Talent Nigerian-American singer Kechi Okwuchi, who survived a plane crash and 100 surgeries in 2005 and Jacksonville native and country western singer, Rion Paige, born with a congenital disease who was a finalist on the X Factor with Demi Lovato.
Katherine Magnoli, a former Ms. Wheelchair America 2017, came up from Sunny Isles with her mom. In a wheelchair due to spina bifida, Magnoli is the author of a children’s book series, ‘The Adventures of KatGirl,’ a superhero in a wheelchair, who in addition to her adventures, addresses the issue of bullying.
In addition to being a children’s book author Magnoli is a radio co-host, model and community activist. She travels across the state advocating, educating and inspiring others with her platform of inclusivity, “Youbilities.”
“No matter what you look like on the outside, we’re all the same on the inside,” she said.
Also driving by in a wheelchair was Carlos Gil, a Miami resident attending the bash for his 12th year.
“I love this event,” he says. “It gives us the freedom to do so many things we might not ordinarily do.”
“Jay understands what it’s like to live with a disability,” says Gil, who signed up to help with the boat rides this year.
Coral Springs residents Andrea and Glen Land were out enjoying the day with their son, Alec, 20, who has autism and epilepsy.
“Alec enjoyed the mural paintings and the arts and crafts,” said Andrea Land. They were headed to the bandstand to listen to music, which Alec enjoyed last year.
First time volunteer, Jay Shapp, who has lived in Boca for 15 years says he hopes to use his event planning skills to become more involved in organizing the event next year.
The retired computer repairman and volunteer firefighter from Wurtsboro, N.Y. was a past race director for that city’s Roosa Gap Roller Coaster Run and says he’s experienced in putting big events together.
“Jay and his team do a fantastic job of throwing a great event,” Shapp said. “They cater to their clientele and you can tell they really have their act together.”
“I see nothing but smiles on everyone,” he said.