For many adults and children, meeting someone who struggles with a physical or mental challenge can make them uncomfortable and they are hesitant to engage. John Hughes of the Cleveland Browns is not that person.
At the age of 12, Hughes met his neighbor Percy, a teenager who was mentally challenged. Hughes immediately befriended him. Even at that young age, Hughes was aware of the struggles his friend faced and decided that someday he would do his best to help others in similar situations.
A lifelong resident of Ohio, Hughes was born in Columbus, attended the University of Cincinnati and was then drafted by the Browns in 2012. He knew that whatever he did would have a local focus on people in Ohio.
Then things took an even more interesting turn. Hughes met Austreeia Everson, who was then in the Marines, and whose son from her previous marriage has an autoimmune disease and hearing loss, which put him in the special needs category. Together Hughes and Everson, now engaged, also partnered to start the Hughes Nation Foundation.
“The main goal is to better the lives of special needs children,” Hughes said. “And especially for families that are struggling.”
The foundation, whose motto is, “Lending a Helping Hand,” raises funds that are then donated to Cleveland-area, families-in-need to be used for everything from medical costs to holiday presents. Their annual bowling event is currently their favorite. Families with special needs children are invited as guests, but what they aren’t told is that all of the money raised that night will be gifted directly to them at the end of the evening.
Hughes also purchases Browns tickets for some of the children and “adopts” families in the Cleveland area at the holidays.
Their work is gratifying, but Hughes notes the bittersweet aspect of it. “You’re happy you can help out but you never want to see people in that situation.”
For Everson, both her family and Marine background have provided invaluable skills for her role as executive director of the foundation. Everson’s family owned a business, which she and her brother helped out with at an early age and so they saw how things worked up close. Then in the Marines, among her many responsibilities were running events and moving troops from one location to another – sometimes as many as 15,000 soldiers at a time.
But, even with those experiences, figuring out how to put things together to launch a foundation was a challenge. “A lot of it was trial and error,” Everson said.
Hughes and Everson credit the Cleveland Browns community outreach program as well as their own active networking as the reason they were able to get Hughes Nation Foundation off the ground so quickly. Just having a connection to the NFL has helped open doors for them as well.
Hughes and Everson also received support from both Hughes’ financial advisor, Phil Lopez, and his agent, Vince Calo. Both men stepped in to provide direction and resources to assist in the creation and continued management of the foundation. Calo serves as the foundation’s general counsel.
The Hughes-Everson family has now expanded to include their son, John IV, a happy, healthy, five-month old who has reinforced their appreciation at their own good fortune and given them even more motivation to help others.
Their goal is to steadily increase the foundation’s reach.
“Our long- term plan is to build Hughes Nation to branch out to the rest of Ohio,” Everson said. “We currently offer ongoing help to 10 families. Our goal is, by 2016, we want to be able to give ongoing help to 200 families.”
And Hughes has never forgotten where it all started for him. While his path has taken him physically away from Percy, their connection remains. Hughes still visits with his friend as often as he can on trips home to Columbus. “I told him that I want to say thank you for opening up my heart and giving me the opportunity to help others,” he said.
After all these years, Percy is still one of the driving inspirations as Hughes continues to grow his foundation to touch as many people as he can.
For more information about the Hughes Nation Foundation, visit www.hughesnationfoundation.com