BELMAR, NJ — For more than a decade, the annual Autism Beach Bash has attracted up to 7,000 to the Belmar oceanfront on the Sunday after Labor Day — a day these children with special needs and their families come together to enjoy a host of activities, including the opportunity to surf. Every year, participants and volunteers with Surfers Healing travel from 10 other states and two other countries to attend the much-anticipated event on the Seventh Avenue beach.
However this year, another traditional event that draws up to another several thousand people is also scheduled on September 8 at Silver Lake Park, near the Fifth Avenue beachfront. St Rose Church of Belmar is among five local parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Trenton hosting a morning mass led by Bishop David O’Connell at the park's Huisman Gazebo.
The situation has presented borough officials with a major predicament — how to accommodate both groups and avoid a major parking problem, especially in light of safety concerns for the special needs children.
While Mayor Mark Walsifer at last night’s Belmar Council meeting said that borough officials have come up with a plan to address the parking issue, a group of parents of these special needs children — led by resident Fran Hines who has orchestrated the 15th annual beach bash from the beginning — expressed their concerns and pushed the borough to have the mass moved to another location.
Borough officials plan to meet this morning, August 21, with Hines of the Colton and Friends Foundation, representatives of the Autism Family Services of New Jersey and the churches to discuss the situation.
To ease the parking crunch, Walsifer said a plan by Police Chief Andrew Huisman and Public Works Director Michael Campbell would close Ocean Avenue to all traffic and allow participants of the beach bash to be dropped off at a specially designated location. Drivers would then be directed where to park and then join their families on the beach.
“I am confident we can make this work,” Walsifer said. “We’re committed to make parking right for this.”
But parents of special needs children and their supporters countered with examples of how the plan would not work — in light of the physical, behavioral and other challenges of these children — explaining these children “can’t just be dropped off.”
“These children have one day to come to the beach and to be treated like they are typical, and you’re about ready to take that away from them,” said Stefanie O’Donnell of Lake Como, one of those parents.
Many of those who spoke at the meeting said there is an "easy solution" — have the Cohort 19 mass moved to a town of one of the other participating parishes, which are St. Catharine-St. Margaret in Spring Lake, St. Mark’s in Sea Girt and St. Teresa of Calcutta in Bradley Beach.
“I hate the position that all of us are in,” said Hines. “This is absolutely unnecessary. The mass could be moved. We can’t do anything that will remotely interfere with (the beach bash). Everyone who spoke here speaks with passion because we are the parents of these children. I live and breathe for these kids.”
While he applauded the borough's efforts to develop a parking plan, he said it was not the answer. “Parents of special needs kids go to great lengths to protect their children. This is an unknown, and it scares us.”
Former Belmar Mayor Kenneth Pringle also voiced his support for having the mass moved, recalling the MTV Sports Festival incident in 1992 that turned violent along Ocean Avenue and surrounding streets, resulting in 29 arrests and 30 injuries. Despite efforts at that time to address any potential problems prior to the event, “it didn’t come out the way we hoped, not for lack of effort,” Pringle said.
As for the current situation, “there is so much at risk and these families have enough on their minds,” he said. “(They should) not have to worry how the day is going to turn out, how to get their child safely onto the beach and how not to stress their child out, so that they can enjoy it.”
Pringle called on borough officials to offer the Catholic churches and the bishop the option of moving mass to another location this year. “It doesn’t have to be at the head of a lake” along the oceanfront, he said.
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