Gavin Ellis, 6, of Belleair finishes the slide in a pool of water.
BELLEAIR – It was an event that had Belleair Mayor Gary Katica strolling around saying over and over, “What a night, what a night.”
The event was Gracie’s Big Splash on Aug. 17. It was the sixth annual event, so one might think Katica had seen it all before. But not like this one. By all accounts, this was the biggest and best ever.
Gracie Purdy died six years ago, just shy of her sixth birthday. She had an incurable cancer. It is in her name and honor that the Big Splash was begun by her parents because she loved the water so much. In fact, she went to the first big splash just months before she died. Her mom, Llisiana Purdy, in an interview last year, recalled holding Gracie that day.
“I held her in my arms the entire time,” Llisiana said. “We did everything together. If she got wet, I got wet.”
Mrs. Purdy agreed that this year the Splash was bigger than ever. But it also held a special meaning for her.
“This is the sixth Splash, she passed away just three months shy of her sixth birthday,” she said. “It would have been wonderful to celebrate this with her because this is the way we would have celebrated her birthday.”
Hundreds of people showed up to help celebrate this year. There were more waterslides than ever before, a new bungee trampoline experience – for which the lines were the longest – and a new raffle room with donated gifts from all over the community. Yet, the water games were still the most popular.
Resident Kris Ellis just moved to Belleair with her family. She spoke while her 6-year-old son Gavin was sliding on his belly in the water nearby.
“This is our first time here,” she said. “We’ve known about this and we are excited to come. My son keeps saying it is awesome and it is. We’ll be back.”
Across the field, 9-year-old Lexi Spencer of Clearwater was going up and down on the bungee trampoline. Her mom, Lori, was another first-timer.
“This is very cool,” Lori said. “We’ve tried to come here for years and we finally made it. The kids are having a blast.”
Walking the grounds nonstop was Gracie’s dad, Marty Purdy. He was selling raffle tickets, helping fix a broken plug and generally making sure things were going well. When asked if he was happy with the event, his answer came easy.
“Oh yes, are you kidding me?” he said “There is a lot of work that goes into this, but it is worth it when you look around and see all these kids having so much fun.”
For the Purdy family, however, the Big Splash brings back into focus memories of their daughter.
“It has its moments,” Marty said. “There are fewer and fewer of them, but we have found a purpose in this. We are celebrating her, we’re not mourning her.”
Proceeds from Gracie’s Big Splash are administered by the Wonders Foundation, which gives money to families with seriously ill children who might need it. Llisiana paid tribute to the Wonders founder Karla Rettstatt, who also helps organize the Big Splash.
“Bless her heart,” Llisiana said. “Karla works so hard and she makes it happen, there are so many touches she puts on it, she seems to get it.”
Llisiana thanked the dozens of people who helped organize and run the event.
“It just makes the event complete,” Llisiana said. “The people are so willing to help. This is a community event and the event belongs to the community.”
She recalled the effort it took in the beginning.
“It was a monumental effort,” Llisiana said. “And it was and is exhausting, but when you see how the community and all the families have responded, it is rewarding for us.”
She is quick to point out, that the event, for her, is about Gracie.
“We miss her and we’re always going to miss her,” Llisiana said. “The Splash allows us to see the goodness of Gracie and the people of this community. We see what we can accomplish, this is golden.”