Carrying flowers and their boards, surfers wade into the ocean to begin their "paddle out" ceremony in Matt Vecere's honor.

By Donald Wittkowski

Holding a few flowers in her hand, Donna Vecere stood by the water’s edge while gazing out at a group of surfers who had paddled just offshore during a ceremony to memorialize her son, Matt.

She was too emotional to talk. For a moment, she stood alone Saturday afternoon during the poignant “paddle out” ceremony, a ritual in which surfers form a circle in the ocean to honor one of their own who has died.

But behind her on Sea Isle City’s 40th Street beach were hundreds of mourners who had come to support her and pay their last respects to Matt Vecere, who grew up as an avid surfer in the resort town.

“This is a fitting place to have this event because, as we all know, Matt, as a young man, spent much time in this area,” Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio told the mourners while they were gathered at Excursion Park before the paddle ceremony.

Vecere was one of eight Americans on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed March 10 while flying in Africa from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, killing all 157 people aboard. He was in Africa on a humanitarian mission.

Donna Vecere, Matt’s mother, watches as the surfers form a circle offshore in memory of her son.

Vecere spent much of his adult life helping others, particularly the struggling people in the impoverished island nation of Haiti. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti proved to be a pivotal moment in his life, solidifying his desire to be part of humanitarian efforts. He raised money to fly to Haiti to join in the earthquake recovery efforts and would return to the island during other humanitarian trips.

Brian Heritage, owner of Heritage Surf & Sport, the Sea Isle surf shop where Vecere had once worked teaching children to surf, recalled how determined Matt was to lend a hand in Haiti and wherever else he was needed.

“The best thing I can say about Matt is that he was a champion for those who had no hope,” Heritage said. “His charity and kindness toward other human beings is what separated him from everyone else and inspires me to be a better person.”

“If each one of us had a little of Matt in us, there would be less turmoil in this world,” Heritage added.

Shortly after her son’s death, Donna Vecere issued a public statement describing Matt’s passion for the environment, civil rights and social justice and his commitment to helping those in need, particularly the people of Haiti.

“He volunteered countless hours with charitable organizations, at community events, and with numerous relief efforts after natural disasters,” Donna Vecere said in the statement. “Matt had strong connections to Haiti. He served with various organizations and made several trips to the island, beginning after the devastating earthquake of 2010, after hurricanes, and again as recently as two weeks (before his death).”

Matt Vecere, a former employee of Heritage Surf & Sport in Sea Isle City, and a rider on the Heritage surf team, is shown in action. (Courtesy Heritage Surf & Sport)

At the time of the plane crash, Vecere was in Africa to attend the United Nations Environment Assembly for the first time, his mother said.

While in Africa, Vecere was planning to deliver air-quality monitors made by IQAir, a California-based company where Matt worked as a writer.

“It was Matt’s actions that will serve as his true legacy,” Mayor Desiderio said. “He obviously touched so many people in so many ways, from Sea Isle City to California to Haiti to Africa.”

One of the mourners who spoke about Vecere’s humanitarian efforts was Elaine Brower, president of Sustainable Orphanages for Haitian Youth. Brower told the crowd at Excursion Park that her efforts to raise money to build a children’s orphanage in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti, stalled until Vecere pledged his help with an online fundraising campaign.

“I was having so much trouble raising money for these children,” Brower said, fighting back tears.

Following Vecere’s help, she has been raising enough money to feed the children and finish the orphanage school, she noted while thanking Matt.

Donna Vecere, in black dress and sunglasses, joins with some of the surfers who were part of the memorial service.

Donna Vecere said her son made lasting friendships in Haiti during his humanitarian trips. Some of the mourners Saturday were from Haiti. They declined to comment out of respect for the Vecere family, a spokesman said.

On the stage at Excursion Park stood a large poster that featured a photo of a smiling Matt Vecere holding a Haitian child. Another picture showed a group of Haitian children. The poster urged people to donate to the Haitian orphanage at so that it can be finished.

A third photo on the poster was a blowup of Vecere surfing, surrounded by the words, “Celebrating the extraordinary life of Matt Vecere.”

The memorial services for Vecere began Saturday afternoon with a Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Sea Isle. Father Joseph Perreault, St. Joseph’s pastor, told mourners that Vecere lived a life of “compassionate care and social solidarity.”

That life, Father Perreault noted, abruptly came to an end during a “shocking plane crash” in Ethiopia that brought “darkness” upon many people.

Mourners at Excursion Park look at photos and a large poster that chronicle Matt Vecere’s surfing days and his humanitarian efforts in Haiti.