Ponte Vedra organization surprises special needs family with new van


Suzanne Free lowered the wheelchair accessible ramp of her 1993 Ford Ecoline, using a stick to prod the safety lever into place so that she could push her 18-year-old son Anthony up the wobbly, rusty incline. As he neared the peak of the ramp, Suzanne helped her son duck his head beneath the top of the vehicle and secured him within his wheelchair a few feet behind her own seat.

After climbing behind the wheel, Suzanne turned the key of the van and heard a familiar clicking sound. The van’s battery was dead, and not for the first time.

“It’s been giving me some troubles lately,” said a chuckling Suzanne, who lives with Anthony in Jacksonville. “Every day is a challenge. Every day is an adventure.”

Anthony, who lives with cerebral palsy, sat in the back of the van in his wheelchair as the clicking sound continued and then watched his mom work to jump the vehicle. They would be late, again, for what they believed was a lunch date with Suzanne’s physical therapist at Aqua Grill in Ponte Vedra Beach.

These few minutes represented a vicious cycle for Suzanne. Anthony’s safety was in jeopardy in this van, and she knew it. Little did she know, though, that this rather typical, frustrating day on Nov. 21 was about to transform itself into a rather exceptional one.

A dream come true

Within an hour of jumping her aging van, Suzanne pulled into the Aqua Grill parking lot in Ponte Vedra Beach, expecting to see her physical therapist waiting for them.

Instead, to her shock and amazement, she saw a swarm of staff members from Board Meetings International (BMI), a Ponte Vedra Beach-based organization through which Anthony had participated in surfing days for disabled individuals. As she parked her van and got out, Suzanne was greeted by former Ms. Wheelchair America and BMI staff member Erika Bogan, who presented Suzanne with a shiny, new MV-1 van bedecked with colored balloons.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year!” Bogan said.

In an instant, tears streamed down Suzanne’s face as she came face-to-face with the van.

“This is too much,” she whimpered. “You’re kidding me?”

For the last time, Suzanne opened the back door of her 1993 Ford Ecoline, lowered the ramp, used her stick to prod the safety lever and helped her son duck his head as he wheeled toward their new sense of safety and freedom.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Suzanne. “I never would expect this from anybody, let alone my friends because we all have our own lives. This is above and beyond what I could ever expect. It’s truly amazing that people care this much. God is great.”

Anthony strong

For nearly five years, the Frees have been involved with Board Meetings International, which organizes family surfing retreats focused on experiential learning to bridge the gap between busy entrepreneur parents and their kids. Founded by two surfers, the organization typically holds a service surf session on the last day of the retreat for their local paraplegic and quadriplegic friends. After surfing – and sometimes learning to surf – throughout the retreat, participants work with Board Meetings International staff members to help the disabled surfers. Anthony never misses a chance to get in the water.

“Board Meetings International is truly an awesome company,” said Suzanne. “Anthony is able to surf, and he truly loves going there. He can just be a typical kid for a day.”

At the organization’s most recent retreat, co-founder Jim Sheils said they learned that the Frees’ van was in rough shape. After discussion among the staff and retreat clients, Sheils said one of the clients suggested they work together to surprise the Frees with a new and safe wheelchair-accessible van. They were all in. Because Anthony flexed his muscles and said “Anthony strong” throughout that particular retreat, the Board Meetings team called the initiative the “Anthony Strong Project.”

Led by Sheils and his business partner Brian Scrone, the grassroots effort raised $35,000 through social media and word of mouth in less than four months. Funds raised covered the cost of the vehicle along with related transport costs and tax-related fees.

“It was overwhelming to see everyone (come) together to make this happen, and witness the generosity from our clients, friends and family,” said Sheils. “No one deserves this more than Suzanne and Anthony.”

Scrone echoed Sheils’ sentiments and said their team was honored and humbled to help the Frees.

“We have been blessed to see Anthony grow over the last few years from a young boy into a beautiful man, and his mother is an unsung hero,” he said. “The amount of care and unconditional love Suzanne gives Anthony, and always with a smile on her face, is awe inspiring for any parent.”

As Suzanne pushed Anthony up the ramp of the new van and secured him inside, she looked to her right and found comfort that her son was seated right next to her instead of a few feet behind.

“We might be able to get to appointments on time now,” said a laughing Suzanne. “This is the best Thanksgiving. Grateful…if I had to pick one word, that would be the word. It’s an amazing Christmas present. It’s truly a blessing. I’m at a loss for words. I just can’t stop thinking ‘really?’”

Anthony reacted with a simple question.

“Are we going surfing?” he asked.

Suzanne smiled and turned the key. The van started without hesitation.