Those who knew Jeffrey Hughes Jr. spoke of his love of Legos and all things Star Wars, of his strong spirit, of his enthusiasm for life.
But the friends and family members who shared their memories of the late Franklin Elementary School student also highlighted his friendly personality and how it saddened him to see other children playing by themselves.
The community paid tribute to his sense of compassion with the addition of a custom-made buddy bench on campus, a physical way to remember the 11-year-old who passed away late last year after a courageous fight against cancer.
The blue bench, which now sits near a tree on Franklin’s yard, was unveiled Friday during an emotional ceremony dedicated to Hughes and the joy with which he approached life.
“May the force be with you,” the bench reads, a nod to the Star Wars series that he loved deeply. “In celebration of Jeffrey.”
The idea for the bench came about when Lincoln Hughes told school principal Deanna Sinfield that his late brother always wanted to take care of others who were lonely. Sinfield said the bench will provide a safe space for students to meet and befriend their peers.
“Jeffrey’s force is felt by so many, everywhere and every day,” she said. “This means we can honor Jeffrey’s spirit. We don’t have to let go.”
Lincoln took the microphone to read a Yoda quote: “Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not.”
The dedication of the bench offered a measure of closure to a community that repeatedly rallied around Hughes after he was diagnosed with a desmoplastic small-round-cell tumor, a rare and aggressive soft-tissue sarcoma that surfaced in his abdomen.
In late 2011, hundreds of Franklin students walked along Montana Avenue to cheer for Hughes, who was seated in the front of a Santa Monica fire truck.
Relatives, friends and community members offered support to the family, donating money for medical expenses, taking care of Hughes’ siblings so his parents could be with him in the hospital and giving Hughes reason after reason to smile.
“There are so many families like us that don’t get anywhere near this kind of support,” said his mother, Annie Hughes. “We are forever grateful to everyone. Whenever you think of Jeffrey or see one of our family members, I want you to smile. As a member of our community, you brought him so much joy and you made him feel incredibly loved.”
One of Hughes’ friends, fourth-grader Mikey Strauss, recalled bringing Lego sets to Hughes in the hospital. He said he admired his friend’s bravery in the face of unpredictable challenges.
“He inspired me,” Strauss said. “I know Jeffrey is in a better place. I’m very thankful for the special memories I have and the friendship I had with Jeffrey. I’m so glad there’s a Jeffrey bench. I will sit with Jeffrey on the new bench.”
Hughes squeezed in as much fun as he could even as his condition worsened. He graduated from Franklin. He experienced zip-lining. He went on a cruise with his family. He got to meet Ashton, the son of his older sister, Mercedes.
“You never gave up,” Hughes’ sister, Amelie, wrote in a tribute letter.
Said his father, Jeff Hughes: “Jeffrey had a beautiful life. He lived it with unfettered joy in his heart. … We all feel so blessed we knew him during his time with us.”
The ceremony culminated as attendees released balloons into the air in unison and watched as they were carried into the sky.
The balloons were no longer visible by the time Hughes’ favorite Firecracker popsicles were handed out, but they were up there somewhere.
Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, email@example.com or on Twitter.