By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
John DiGenni, who had known Matt Vecere since the two were boys growing up in Sea Isle City, recalled that his close friend was a regular guy who loved surfing and simply goofing around.
But DiGenni noted there was also a humanitarian side to Vecere – one that inspired him to help people who were less fortunate, whether they were senior citizens at an assisted living home at the Jersey Shore or earthquake victims in the impoverished island nation of Haiti.
“He just had some deep pull to do things for other people,” DiGenni said. “For a while, he would try to help people in Atlantic City and volunteered his time at an old folks home.”
DiGenni is in the process of planning a memorial service in Sea Isle for Vecere, who 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. Vacere was in Africa on a humanitarian mission.
Although details are still being worked out, Vacere’s service in Sea Isle is planned for June 8. It will include surfers paddling off shore and forming a circle to honor Vecere as well as a ceremony on the beach.
On March 15, DiGenni, 41, joined members of the surfing community in California to celebrate Vecere’s life at a memorial in San Clemente organized by the Catalyst Surf Shop, where Matt worked as a manager from 2005 to 2009.
DiGenni has been talking to Vecere’s mother, Donna, about the Sea Isle memorial. Vecere’s friends and loved ones are expected to fly in to New Jersey from all over the country, including from California, where Matt had lived for about 12 years.
Sea Isle Councilman William Kehner said a fundraiser is also expected to be held in Sea Isle around the same time as the June 8 memorial. James Bennett, owner of the LaCosta Lounge and Oar House Pub in Sea Isle, is willing to organize the fundraiser, which will benefit Vacere’s humanitarian charities, Kehner said.
Bennett serves as chairman of the Sea Isle City Tourism Commission. Donna Vecere was a member of the Tourism Commission when she still lived in Sea Isle, according to Kehner.
Shortly after her 43-year-old 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 ago.”
Both Donna Vecere and DiGenni said Matt made lasting friendships in Haiti during his humanitarian trips.
“All of the Haiti people were affected by his death,” DiGenni pointed out. “He was not a fly-by-nighter. He was there repeatedly.”
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti proved to be a pivotal moment in Vecere’s life, solidifying his desire to be part of humanitarian efforts.
“When the Haiti earthquake happened, he said, ‘Hey, let’s go do this,”’ DiGenni recalled.
Vecere and DiGenni had made plans to travel to Haiti together in 2010, but the trip proved so costly that the money they had raised would pay for only one of them. So it was decided that Vecere would go.
DiGenni and Vecere were lifelong friends, starting from their boyhood days in Sea Isle. They were surfing buddies while growing up at the Jersey Shore and remained close after Vecere moved to California. Vecere returned to Sea Isle in 2016 to attend DiGenni’s wedding.
Vecere’s family had owned a Sea Isle City restaurant, Steak Out, which has since changed hands. Matt had worked at the restaurant when he lived in Sea Isle. He was a graduate of Ocean City High School and Stockton University in Galloway Township.
DiGenni, who works as a sales agent for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach Realtors in Sea Isle, last spoke to Vecere a week before he died.
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.
IQAir issued a statement expressing the company’s sadness over Vecere’s death. The company develops air-quality products for homes, offices, schools and hospitals.
“Matt was a great writer and an avid surfer with a passion for helping others,” the IQAir statement said.
DiGenni knew that about his friend Matt Vecere long before the rest of the world learned of his humanitarian side.
“That was his mission in life – to help other people,” DiGenni said.