SEA ISLE CITY — Whether it was low or high tide, Matt Vecere would ride the waves off the city’s beaches for hours on end as a kid.
“His first surf ... was probably at 10 years old,” said childhood friend Ted DelFranco, of Egg Harbor Township. “It would be like six inches of waves, and Matt’s out. ... He’d surf literally every day.”
So fittingly, the sandy shores of Sea Isle were where Vecere, one of 147 people killed in an Ethiopian Airlines crash in March, was remembered by friends and relatives.
Hundreds watched from the 40th Street beach as dozens paddled into the Atlantic Ocean holding flowers during a memorial for the 43-year-old, who dedicated part of his life to helping children in Haiti.
Surfers carried their boards into the ocean and paddled into the cold waters for about 10 minutes.
“It was Matt’s actions that will serve as his true legacy,” Mayor Lenny Desiderio told a large crowd at Excursion Park ahead of the paddling ceremony. “He obviously touched so many people in so many ways, from Sea Isle City to California to Haiti to Africa.”
Vecere grew up in Sea Isle, working at a breakfast and lunch restaurant his parents owned called Steak Out on Landis Avenue near 40th Street only a block from where the memorial was held.
That’s where Mike Stearne, 45, met Vecere as a teenager. The two also surfed together.
“Matt was always funny and didn’t take himself too seriously. ... Even in really busy, high-stress situations, he would be-level headed,” Stearne said.
Friends say Vecere was always compassionate. When his father, Thomas, died in 2000, then-24-year-old Vecere organized a surfing contest to benefit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Vecere graduated from Ocean City High School and studied ocean engineering at Florida Institute of Technology. He returned to New Jersey to attend Stockton University before becoming editor of the surfing publication Northeast Surf News for about five years, said friend John DiGenni.
“We were best friends. ... This is where we surfed all the time. On this street,” DiGenni said before he would put on a wet suit and head into the water.
In 2005, Vecere moved to California and worked in the surfing industry.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Vecere found another calling and became active in relief efforts. He continued that work up until his death, traveling between Haiti and his home on the West Coast often.
His mother, Donna, in a statement released in March, said her son had been in Haiti two weeks prior to the crash and that he had been in Africa for the U.N. Environment Assembly.
Standing before a crowd on the windy Saturday in Sea Isle, Elaine Browers, president of Sustainable Orphanages for Haiti Youth, said she was contacted by Vecere after she started an online fundraising page to raise money to build an orphanage for children in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti.
Her fundraising efforts weren’t successful, she said through tears, until Vecere got involved in sharing the page and creating an accompanying video.
“I was having so much trouble raising money for these children. ... (I) was raising a few dollars here and there,” Browers said. “Now ... we are finishing the school. We’re able to feed the children. ... I want to thank Matt.”