October 15, 2014
Nothing is more heartbreaking than losing a child. Haworth, New Jersey native Carly Elizabeth Hughes was just two days shy of her 24th birthday when she was diagnosed with gastric cancer in October 2012. She fought the disease with determination and endured radiation, chemotherapy, and multiple operations before passing away on February 17, 2013.
In the face of unspeakable tragedy, her mother and step-father, Irene and Tony Vouvalides, made the courageous decision to carry on her legacy of giving to others. You see, Carly wasn’t your average 24-year-old. Although young, she had already determined to dedicate her life to helping children and those less fortunate. While attending Boston College, she had participated in a service trip to Holy Family School in Natchez, Mississippi. One of the oldest African-American Catholic schools in the United States, Holy Family was struggling financially, and Carly wanted to help. According to her mother, she came back from that first trip a “changed woman”, going on to lead future service trips and always keeping the children and faculty of Holy Family School very much on her mind.
So when Irene received life insurance money after Carly’s death, she knew she couldn’t simply keep it. She remembers saying to herself, “I can’t touch this money. I have to do something – I have to start a foundation and do something for children.”
With the support of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, Irene, Tony, and several of Carly’s family members and friends, including her boyfriend Michael, created Carly’s Kids – A Foundation for Education, a donor advised fund dedicated to providing education for children in need and to supporting research for the treatment and prevention of esophageal and gastric cancers. From its inception, the Foundation has been focused on supporting Holy Family.
When Irene and Tony moved to South Carolina, it was only natural that Carly’s legacy would follow them, and Irene soon found an additional way to share Carly’s love. While reading the newspaper, Irene learned the shocking truth that South Carolina is second in the country for domestic abuse, with women dying at the rate of one every 12 days as a result of abuse. “We looked at these numbers and thought, ‘We have to do something,’” Irene recalls.
Finding a local residential shelter for battered women and children – Citizens Opposed to Domestice Abuse or “CODA”, Irene and Tony found their answer. Both participated in training and are now preparing to volunteer at the shelter – with Irene working with the children and Tony helping women with job readiness. “I felt a ‘pay it forward’ feeling,” Irene says. “I can’t have my daughter back, so what can I do to honor her memory?”
Studies show that children who grow up in violent households are more likely to become abusers. Carly lived her life with a passion to help children. Today, her passion is being realized. “If we can get in there and help educate these children, we can make a real difference,” Irene shares. “I can do something for my community, and my country, and my daughter.”
From meeting educational needs in Mississippi to helping CODA citizens in South Carolina, Irene and Tony are, indeed, making a real difference. The Community Foundation of New Jersey is honored to partner in helping keep Carly Elizabeth Hughes’ love and legacy alive.