The Man Behind Boca’s Boating and Beach Bash for People With Disabilities

boating and beach bash

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The Man Behind Boca’s Boating and Beach Bash for People With Disabilities

boating and beach bash
People pose at the 2016 Boating and Beach Bash. Photo provided by Jan Van Vechten.

Spanish River Park in Boca Raton will be the site of America’s largest free event for people of all ages with disabilities of all kinds.

Thousands are expected to attend the 2017 Boating and Beach Bash for People with Disabilities on Saturday, March 18, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s a day when people with disabilities, their families and caregivers can take boat rides, enjoy live music, play games and eat—all for free. Even parking is on the house.

Boca Raton resident Jay H. Van Vechten is founder and executive director of the event. Like so many of the people we interview for the Fit Life blog, Van Vechten has an interesting story.

He knows a lot about what it’s like to be disabled.

Van Vechten was near the top of the business world in the 1980s and ‘90s. He founded and operated a successful marketing communications agency in New York City, which was named among the top 30 independent communications agencies in the nation. He had a satellite office and winter home in Boca Raton, and was named president of the Public Relations Global Network, one of the top three PR networks in the world.

Things were great, Van Vechten said. But then he fell.

It happened in a hotel bathroom in 2001. Van Vechten walked in without turning on the lights, so he couldn’t see the inch of water covering the floor. He slipped and fell backward over the bathtub, crushing five vertebrae. He then fell forward and shattered both his knees, eventually going into a split, which required the replacement of both his hips.

“I spent the better part of two years in a wheelchair, endured numerous surgeries and countless days at rehab facilities. By the time this nightmare was winding down, my business had all but evaporated. I closed the New York office and soon after the Boca office,” he told Boca Raton through email.

Jay Van Vechten at the Bash in 2015. Photo provided by the Buzz Agency.
Jay Van Vechten at the Bash in 2015. Photo provided by the Buzz Agency.

With far too much time on his hands, Van Vechten said he realized that his creativity and imagination were still intact. He thought that things could be better for others with challenges if someone stepped up and did what no one else was doing.

“… give ‘em a good time, for free,” he wrote. He went to the City of Boca Raton, where he was serving its Disability Advisory Board, and presented his idea to create an event that featured yachts, a free BBQ lunch and live music.

The Bash was born and 350 people attended the first event in March 2009.But the City said the event was too large and had too many potential problems for it to manage. So Van Vechten took over the event with his wife, with the support of his friends and neighbors. They raised money and changed certain elements of the event.

“No longer would it be confined to residents of Boca. Instead we would open it to all families living in South Florida dealing with physical or mental challenges…or both,” Van Vechten said. The newly minted Boating and Beach Bash for People with Disabilities doubled in size in 2012.

“… media began referring to the event as the ‘Miracle on the Intracoastal,’” he said.

He also said Boca is the only city in the nation that has an event of this caliber. He dreams of bringing the event to other waterfront cities, and he said Vancouver has already expressed interest in a Bash event.

“The variety of disabilities we see at the Bash is as varied as the types of disabilities that inflict the general population. While many disabilities are unseen, we also have people, particularly youngsters, who you will never see at the mall, McDonald’s or the movies. They are simply too disabled to find any comfort in being part of mainstream living,” he says. “But at the Bash, everyone knows they will not be judged, laughed at or stared at. We are all about embracing everyone, including the caregivers who we love to honor.”

The Bash features dozens of activities, including wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, yoga, meditation and dance classes and lots of options on the beach. Mobility mats that cover the sand allow people in weelchairs to roll right to the edge of the water. From there, physical therapists can transfer them into water wheelchairs that float, and the aquatics team from the YMCA will take them into the water.

“For many it is their first time in the ocean. You can’t imagine the joy,” Van Vechten said.

There will be 20 private yachts at the Bash, which will ride up and down the Intracoastal. The Bash also features an all-day concert, miniature ponies, service dogs, magicians (who are hearing impaired) and 20 action heroes in full costume. Fred Astaire Dance Studios will be teaching line dancing, even to those with mobility issues.

Five area hospitals, four medical schools and the College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University will be at the event with onsite staff offering noninvasive testing for free. They will also provide counseling in nutritious eating, living more healthfully, exercise and more, Van Vechten said.

This year’s event will include 40 exhibitors offering information and community resources for the special needs community. The Office Depot Foundation will be giving away 2,000 backpacks filled with coloring and drawing materials, he says.

If you think living with a disability isn’t common, think again. “…53 million Americans (20 percent) live with a disability—seen or unseen… Because of our aging population and retirees [in Palm Beach County], that figure jumps to one in four, or 25 percent, of the residents living in this area have challenges,” he said.

For more information on the Bash, go to boatingbeachbash.com.
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