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Cornelius News

20 years: The story behind Big Day at the Lake

Feb. 28. By Dave Yochum. It took me a little while, but after we moved to Cornelius in 1997, I realized Lake Norman was almost a private lake. There was limited access then, no public beach at Ramsey Creek. Even if you lived across the street from the lake, you couldn’t necessarily go swimming because the lakefront was all private property.

So why not swim off your boat? Not everyone has a boat, let alone the car and trailer needed to tow it.

Unfair, I thought, wondering why the towns of Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville had not established public beaches more than 30 years after the lake was filled, God knows how long after the lake was planned. (Of course, Cornelius had to annex its way to the lake.)

But, still.

I thought why not share the lake with kids? I took the idea to neighbors to share our boats with kids. It was received wholeheartedly.

The next step was finding a partner, and that turned out to be Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas.

I cold-called their CEO at the time, Carol Lee, who dove in.

Here’s how she remembers it 20 years later.

I recall being at work one day and receiving a cold call from a man who identified himself as Dave Yochum, editor of Cornelius Today. He was calling to offer assistance in providing an activity for the matches of Big Brothers Big Sisters. He said he lived on Lake Norman, and felt that he and his neighbors could offer matches an opportunity to go boating on the Lake. His idea was in the initial stages, but I was struck with his sincerity and enthusiasm. We set a date to meet at the office, and I was impressed with his genuine desire to help. He understood that the youth we serve have not had the opportunity to experience a wide range of activities and experiences that others may take for granted. He said in effect, “I have a boat and all my neighbors have boats and I am sure they would be willing to help. Together, we fleshed out an idea and a plan for an event to bring matches and “Boat Hosts” together for a day of fun on the Lake. We began with Dave inviting his neighbors, friends and colleagues to an informational meeting at his home.

—Carol Lee

A great name

The meeting was amazing and we came up with the name “Big Day at the Lake.”

Big Day at the Lake is July 20 this year

In addition to providing a full day of fun for at-risk kids in Big Brothers Big Sisters, the concept brings  people together who wouldn’t otherwise come together, an awesome thing in a stratified society.

Jeff Tarte, the former mayor of Cornelius as well as our local NC Senator, also got on board.

“The first Big Day At The Lake supporting Big Brothers Big Sisters is etched in my memory like an important life event. It was a life changing idea to give kids, most who had never seen a lake, the opportunity to spend a day playing on a lake! After 20 years it is now anticipated like Christmas, but it happens in July. BDATL creates lasting memories and lays the foundation for countless more amazing experiences to come,” Tarte said.

Jeff Tarte

It also shows kids in their formative years there are opportunities out there, as well as friendly, welcoming people.

—Big Day at the Lake is July 20 this year. 


Naturally, you need T-shirts to have a Big Day at the Lake. The first people I went to for financial help were Robin and Jack Salzman, former owners of Lake Norman Chrysler Dodge Jeep. They dove in too, and paid for the T-shirts.

Says Robin: “It seems like yesterday, but it has been 20 years since Dave walked into our dealership saying he had this great idea but he needed help with T-shirts for the event. Turns out it was the very first Big Day at the lake event. We were proud supporters then and we are still proud supporters 20 years later!”

Robin, Jack Salzman

Business sponsors and donors have sent $2 million to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas—with a little extra punch—$200,000 to be exact—from the NC Legislature thanks to then-Sen. Tarte.

FYI, there’s virtually no overhead for Big Day at the Lake thanks to in-kind donations from local businesses, including Duke Energy which provides the setting for our annual picnic for 500 to 750 Littles, Bigs, Boat Hosts, volunteers and sponsors.

It takes a village

Pulling off Big Day at the Lake is almost a year-around undertaking, with key committee members over the years who run the show as I’m best in the background around organizing things.

Denis Bilodeau is one of the long-term volunteers and Boat Hosts.

“From the very first time I heard about the BDATL concept, I knew I wanted to be involved. What I didn’t realize was how addicted I would become to seeing the pure joy and excitement from the participating Bigs and Littles! Here’s to another 20 years,” he said.

BDATL picnic guru Angela Swett said it’s been an amazing 20 years. “Being part of such a wonderful group of people as we work to make a difference in the lives of children—well, there truly isn’t any better feeling.”

Boat Hosts like Rod Beard, Joshua Dobi, Marty Fox, Mayor Woody Washam, Sen. Thom Tillis, Michael Miltich and Ajay Stone have formed lasting relationships with Littles who will someday look for a reference or a connection, for a job or college application.

The current CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, Donna Dunlap says Big Day at the Lake is not just a single day of fun.

“It is a year-long community effort to enable youths and their mentors to have a great time with boat host families on the lake and a picnic.

“In addition to the actual Big Day at the Lake, the Lake Norman community raises significant funds to help support the agency’s mission and the children we serve.

“We are so grateful,” Dunlap said.

From Carol Lee, who I’ve known for 20 years: “It speaks to the power of what can happen when one person steps outside of the world in which he or she lives and decides to invest in the lives of others.”

Tracy and I are also grateful for the opportunity to meet and work with so many kind and sharing individuals and have had this opportunity to give back to our community.

Thanks everyone!

You’re invited

The Big Day at the Lake 20th Anniversary Beach Bash is at Lost Worlds Brewery March 8. Click here for tickets. Proceeds benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas.