MONTVILLE, NJ – After the tragic deaths of Samuel Cali and Leonidas Vagias, both 19, in June of 2016, Vagias’ friends and family decided to put their sorrow and energy into starting a foundation in his name.
Long-time friend, Don Bosco Preparatory School-mate and football teammate Matt Perricone recalls that difficult time.
“We were spending a lot of time at Leo’s house the first few days after his death,” he told TAPinto Montville. “Obviously the family was still distraught and shocked. I talked to Alex Cucciniello, Leo’s sister Alexandra, and his father Ted, and we were thinking about how kind Leo was and all the stories people were telling us. We couldn’t let the spirit he had, and the happiness and joy he had that people were telling us about, disappear.”
The family founded The Leonidas Foundation, with Perricone at the helm as president, Cucciniello as vice president, Alexandra as treasurer, and parents Ted and Francis as directors. Other friends serve in other board positions.
“Our focus is to do things in a similar way to Leo’s actions,” said Ted Vagias. “Leo always said, ‘when people help you, help the person behind you.’ So we came up with the idea to base our projects on the mind, body and spirit.”
Since Leo was interested in business and entrepreneurship, Ted said, the foundation recently announced a business curriculum at Don Bosco School in Leo’s name. (Read about it here.) This is the mind portion, Ted said.
The “body” and “spirit” principles are being achieved through several community service programs the foundation has undertaken, including a Thanksgiving food drive, which collected more than 1,000 pounds of food, distributed to North Bergen C.A.R.E.S.
In December, the group sponsored a toy drive which donated more than 1,000 toys to St. Joseph’s Church in Jersey City, St. Rocco’s Church in Union City and Iglesias of Christos in North Bergen. The group is planning to send the boys at St. Peter’s orphanage in Denville on a trip to Six Flags, and also intends to hold a school supply drive.
“Once we put out there what our plan was, everyone has been so supportive,” Perricone said. “It’s overwhelming how many people donated their time and money to what we’ve begun to do. The foundation has grown from five or six people into a lot more in such a short time. That’s what keeps it going every day for us – it’s impossible to let Leo’s memory diminish.”
Ted says each day is hard but community support has helped the family immensely.
“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “We’re all taking as many roles in the foundation as we can. If it’s too emotional, someone steps in. The role I play is the one I can that day.
“The positive thoughts and support of friends and family around us have helped. I don’t know how anyone could take this journey without that.”
Ted recalled the candlelight vigil that members of the Montville Township community held on his street just a few days after Leo’s and Sam’s deaths. People lined the street of the Vagias’ Towaco home with candles while the Cali and Vagias family watched.
“I will never forget it,” Ted said. “The community in Montville is unbelievable. We are surrounded by wonderful people. We were beside ourselves. When something like this happens, you want an angel to help you. For us it was an entire community. We are very blessed.”
The Leonidas Foundation is sponsoring a cocktail party and silent auction on March 30. For more information, click Kickoff Event.