Matt Vecere was all about helping others.
Whether it was teaching children to surf in Sea Isle City or providing relief to victims of an earthquake in Haiti, the Ocean City High School graduate and former Stockton University student dedicated his time and energy to aiding those in need.
His dedication ultimately cost him his life.
Vecere, 43, was among 157 people killed in an Ethiopia Airlines crash Sunday on its way to Nairobi, Kenya.
“I just heard about it (Tuesday) morning, and it broke my heart,” said West Cape May’s Lisa Roselli, co-director of the South Jersey chapter of the East Coast Surfing Association. “Matt was a wonderful guy, a super compassionate person, and you could see that by the way he lived his life. He was an accomplished surfer, but that wasn’t what drove him. He always wanted to do more in life. He was a very special person. I’m heartbroken.”
Vecere’s mother, Donna, in a statement, said charity drove her son. He provided relief following numerous natural disasters, especially in Haiti, including after the 2010 earthquake, and was there “as recently as two weeks ago.”
He was in Africa for the U.N. Environment Assembly, she said.
“Matt was passionate about the environment, civil rights, social and environmental justice, and advocating for those less fortunate. His passion turned to direct action, rolling up his sleeves to serve causes where he could make a tangible difference,” Donna said. “Matt will be missed by many. We are heartbroken more than words can express.”
Vecere grew up in Sea Isle, where his parents owned a popular breakfast and lunch restaurant, Steak Out.
He spent summers surfing various breaks throughout Cape May County. He was part of a core of young surfers that included Matt Keenan and Dan Maragliano, who are both being inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame this year, along with Roselli, Roselli’s husband, Joe Grottola, Wildwood surfer/shaper Mike Sciarra and others.
Brian Heritage, a former professional surfer and renowned shaper who owns Heritage Surf & Sport in Sea Isle, hired Vecere to work at his shop and give surfing lessons.
“Matt was a terrific surfer, but what really stood out to me was his selflessness and desire to help others,” Heritage said. “Matt was one of those guys who would go the extra mile to help the kids who were struggling a little bit. He carried that compassion with him his entire life.”
He continued to demonstrate that compassion following the death of his father, Thomas, on April 13, 2000.
Soon afterward, Matt organized a surfing contest to benefit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“I was very impressed by his compassion in such a tough time,” said Patricia Gibbons, who grew up in Cape May and was friends with Vecere. She now lives in the Ortley Beach section of Toms River. “Matt was a kind, deeply dedicated servant to his fellow mankind for all the years I had the pleasure of knowing him. And he backed up his compassion with action in Haiti and other places.
“Matt was just a decent, kind guy who did the heavy lifting, as well as the advocacy. The world just lost a good one.”
Vecere moved to California a few years ago, where he worked as a content writer for a Los Angeles-area company, IQAir. He also wrote for several surfing publications. But his passion was always directed toward helping others.
He was involved in Waves for Water (W4W), a nonprofit that helps provide clean water for victims of natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.
“His Christian principles drove him to a higher calling, to do what he could to help anyone who needed it,” Heritage said. “You don’t see that in very many people. He always put others ahead of himself. He literally gave his life while helping others. It doesn’t seem fair.”
Staff Writer Colt Shaw contributed to this report.