By Ron Hayes
According to the website of the American Disabilities Foundation, Lowell Van Vechten is its co-founder and honorary chairwoman.
This is true.
“But really I’m the keeper of the history,” she adds.
By history, she means a tragic accident that has been reborn as an annual day of joy.
On March 2, thousands will gather in Boca Raton’s Spanish River Park for the 15th annual Boating & Beach Bash for People with Disabilities.
They will enjoy boat rides on the Intracoastal Waterway, bathing in the Atlantic Ocean, health screenings, therapy workshops, wheelchair yoga, live music, dance parties, therapy pets, giveaways and barbecue lunch.
It’s all free and all are welcome — family, friends and people with disabilities, whether their disabilities are visible or invisible.
“One of the great successes of the Bash is that everyone is made to feel equal,” Van Vechten says. “There’s nothing more healing than to be celebrated and surrounded by people like yourself so you know you’re not alone.”
Lowell Van Vechten’s husband, Jay, was alone in a San Diego hotel room that night in 2001. A successful New York public relations executive in town on business, he slipped on the wet bathroom floor in the dark, fell backward over the tub and shattered five vertebrae. Then he fell forward and shattered both knees. The splayed legs required two hip replacements.
The couple’s old life was gone, but a new one was born.
“Jay’s personal motto was, ‘Don’t postpone joy,’” Van Vechten says.
After his accident, Jay and Lowell Van Vechten of Boca Raton dedicated their lives to bringing joy to the community he’d suddenly joined in that dark hotel bathroom.
Jay served on Boca Raton’s since-disbanded board for people with disabilities, and when his vision for the city’s annual picnic for the disabled grew bigger than the city could handle, the Van Vechtens took over. The Beach Bash debuted in 2009, they founded the American Disabilities Foundation in 2012, and since Jay’s death in 2020, his widow has committed herself to perpetuating their annual day of joy.
Her familiarity with tragedy and commitment to others did not begin with her husband’s fall.
In 1960, her oldest brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and institutionalized.
In 1998, her middle brother, a Vietnam vet who had been treating his PTSD with heroin, took an over-the-counter medication for the flu, lapsed into a coma and died three days later. He was 48.
She shares this family heartache on the ADF website, in an essay titled, “Why Do I Care So Much About People with Disabilities?”
Growing up on Long Island, she volunteered as a candy striper at Southampton Hospital.
“I put together stacks of bandages,” she recalls with a laugh.
As a high school student at Sacred Heart Academy in Menlo Park, California, in the late 1960s, she volunteered at a Stanford University program for children with developmental disabilities and learned skills she preaches today.
“You ask before touching,” she tells volunteers. “You don’t speak in harsh tones, and if someone is using a wheelchair, you lower yourself to their eye level.”
In the 1980s, while Van Vechten was a marketing director at Mademoiselle magazine in Manhattan and AIDS patients were fighting for both their lives and insurance coverage, she volunteered at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
“I shuffled papers,” she says modestly. “A lot of people don’t understand insurance.”
Now she is one of about 150 volunteers who will work in six shifts, organizing 40 exhibitors in 25 active zones throughout Spanish River Park, so about 5,000 disabled guests and others can share a day of community and barbecue.
“I always used to say, if you have an annual party, you’d make new friends over time and eventually it grows to be almost a family of people with whom you celebrate, whatever the occasion happens to be,” Lowell Van Vechten says, “and that’s what the Bash is.
“It’s a free day of joy.”
If You Go
What: The 15th annual Boating & Beach Bash for People with Disabilities — the nation’s largest, free, one-day event for people with disabilities
When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. March 2
Where: Spanish River Park, 3001 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton
Information: www.AmericanDisabilitiesFoundation.org. To volunteer, call 561-899-7400.
NOMINATE SOMEONE TO BE A COASTAL STAR
Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 561-337-1553.