By Dan Russo
DUBUQUE — On June 15, 2014, Audrey Hooks’ nephew, Liam Vaughn, drowned at a family cook out. Over a year later, the young woman, now a junior at Loras College in Dubuque, was still learning to cope with the loss of the energetic 3-year-old with blonde curly hair that bounced when he ran.
After wrestling with her faith in the wake of the tragedy, she decided to attend a Bible study for athletes that meets once a week on campus. On the first night she went, Oct. 26, divine providence led her to meet Kylie DeWees, a fellow student-athlete who was also attending for the first time. Both decided to stay later after the study in the school’s interfaith space.
“I needed to pray a little longer,” said Hooks. “I’m not sure why, but Kylie decided to stay back and pray also.”
“We had never even met each other,” added DeWees. “Our first conversation was in prayer.”
After the silent encounter, the two women began to talk. Hooks revealed that she was still grieving for her nephew. DeWees asked if she had ever heard of the “Angel of Hope” — an international movement that places memorial statues of angels in cities to remember children who have died. Groups meet at these statues once a year to hold a vigil and remember their loved ones.
As a junior at Xavier Catholic High School in Cedar Rapids, DeWees had been so affected by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, that she wanted to do something for the families affected. She sat down at a piano that day, and despite having never taken formal lessons, began to compose music. She later recorded an album and played at a memorial in Newtown for the children lost at Sandy Hook. DeWees used her talent to raise money to build an Angel of Hope statue on her high school’s grounds that was dedicated in 2014.
It turned out that the parents of Hooks’ nephew — Ashley and Mark Vaughn — had attended an Angel of Hope vigil at the statue in Rockford, Illinois, the same year the Xavier statue had its first vigil. Hooks and DeWees talked for hours the first night they met, even going to Christ the King Chapel so that DeWees could play her music. Since then, the two students — one a track athlete, the other a tennis player — have forged a strong friendship, with faith at the foundation.
“The girls had only been to Bible study for a week,” reflected Mary Vercollone, a Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionary who leads the study. “It’s clearly just been a sign from God. It’s brought these two girls together.”
On Halloween, DeWees was inspired to write “Liam’s song” in honor of her friend’s nephew.
“I had a picture of him and I put it on the piano,” said DeWees. “It was really easy to write the song for him.”
When Hooks heard the music for the first time, she became emotional.
“There’s a certain part of the song that made me cry tears of joy,” she said. “It’s a lighthearted song and he was a child.”
The friendship has helped the women strengthen their faith. DeWees recently attended a service at Hooks’ congregation, Hope Church, and Hooks attended Catholic Mass with DeWees at Christ the King Chapel.
“I think Kylie has helped me get closer to my faith,” said Hooks. “It’s really beautiful going through an unexpected or tragic loss and a beautiful friendship comes from it. It does bring families closer together also.”
Hooks has been able to bond with her sister, and was recently asked to lead a prayer in front of a memorial site for her nephew in a local park. This was the first time the sisters have prayed together. Hooks has also helped her other nephew, Liam’s brother, process the loss.
“He’s asked me questions,” Hooks said. “It really started to get him thinking about his faith.”
DeWees plans to play “Liam’s Song” at this year’s Angel of Hope vigil in Cedar Rapids. All the Angel of Hope vigils world-wide take place on Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. Hooks is unsure if she’ll be attending with DeWees or the event in Rockford with her family. Either way, she plans to send an item with DeWees to be placed in front of the state in Cedar Rapids. Hooks plans to give DeWees something related to Batman, which was Liam’s favorite superhero.
DeWees is happy the statues and the movement behind them that she supports is continuing to help people.
“The Angel of Hope statue was created to be a place for others to go for hope and healing, but more importantly, it brings people together,” said DeWees. “In my case, God blessed me with an amazing friend who I now call my best friend, Audrey.”
This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.