Carlos Malave of St. Ambrose Council 1463 in College Point, N.Y., holds the baseball glove once worn by his son, Cristian, before a car accident took the boy’s life March 30, 2013. Carlos wears a memorial wristband that bears his son’s name. (photo by Ed Lefkowicz)
Carlos Malave joined the Knights of Columbus a dozen years ago because he admired the Order’s commitment to charity and he wanted to help people in his community of College Point, Queens, N.Y.
Never did he expect to be on the receiving end of that charity.
Then tragedy struck the Malave family as they returned home from a Florida vacation on March 30, 2013. As they drove from Clearwater along U.S. Route 301, a car traveling the wrong direction collided head-on with the family’s minivan.
Carlos, 43, sustained life-threatening injuries, while his wife, Hilda, 42, had shattered several bones. Their eldest daughter, Melissa, 20, suffered a concussion and head trauma, and their younger daughter, Alyssa, 15, broke her foot. Their youngest child and only son, Cristian, 11, did not survive.
“Cristian was awesome,” said Carlos, a member of St. Ambrose Council 1463 in College Point. “It’s going to take a long time to get used to not having our little man with us.”
Amid the heartache, this Knight and his family found hope and healing through the overwhelming support of brother Knights, their families and communities in two states.
A NETWORK OF SUPPORT
Sitting in his living room on a recent Saturday, Carlos admits that he remembers very little of the weeks he spent in critical condition and rehabilitation at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, Gainesville, where ambulances took the family after the accident.
Carlos suffered severe “seatbelt damage” when the impact caused the safety strap to shift his internal organs. He endured eight surgeries, lost 50 pounds and had skin grafted from his thighs to his abdominal area “to keep my intestines in,” he said.
Wincing as he stands up, Carlos lifts his tan sweater to reveal the surgical scars and an ileostomy bag to the right of his abdomen. The bag bypasses his large intestine, which is not functioning as a result of the accident.
News of the family’s misfortune spread quickly through the tight-knit community of College Point. Carlos is the local FedEx deliveryman. Hilda grew up in the area and is a familiar face at the dancing school the girls attend. Cristian attended religious education classes at the family parish of St. Fidelis Church and played baseball for College Point Little League.
Since the family was 1,000 miles away at the time of the accident, Robert P. Graziano, past grand knight of Council 1463 and district deputy of New York District #27, knew he and other area Knights could not offer hands-on assistance. So he reached out to a network of men he knew not in name, but in spirit who stand for the same principles of unity, charity and fraternity.
Graziano sent an urgent e-mail appeal to councils in and around Gainesville, alerting them that a brother Knight and his family had been seriously injured and asking if they could offer support. The response from the Knights in Florida far surpassed what Graziano expected from “a simple e-mail.”
Joseph Solenski, then-grand knight of Pope John Paul II Council 13900 at the University of Florida, immediately went to the hospital and then to the local Ronald McDonald House, where Hilda and Alyssa were staying.
“I promised them they would be taken care of,” said Solenski. “As Knights, there’s a sense of fraternity. We come together to answer the need of a fallen brother.”
True to his word, Solenski recruited neighboring councils to the cause. He estimated that at least 100 Knights and their families across Florida District #12 contributed in various ways. More than a few took time to stop by the hospital.
“I have no idea who they all were,” Hilda said, recalling the Knights from Gainsville, Ocala and Tampa who visited Carlos. “The magnitude of help was unbelievable. They brought cookies and rosaries. They prayed by [Carlos’] bedside, and they always asked if we needed anything.”
Jerry Woodward, then-grand knight of Father Patrick J. Lynch Council 6108 of St. Patrick Church, Gainesville, spoke to his council members about the situation. Moved by the Malaves’ experience, Andrew Mitchell offered the family use of his rental home, where Hilda and the girls stayed for almost two months, rent-free with all utilities included.
“What they did for my family was amazing,” said Carlos, who spent a week at the house after his release from rehab. “They gave my family the comforts of home without being at home.”
Those comforts included mattresses and box springs, furnished by Catholic Charities through the efforts of John Barli, a member of Father John H. Patrick Council 13207 and regional director of Catholic Charities Gainesville. Meanwhile, Woodward’s friends at Dumas Discount Furniture provided bed frames and a dining room set. Knights and parishioners from St. Patrick’s Church in Gainesville cleaned the house, set up furniture and tried to meet the Malaves’ every need. Area eateries also donated meals, and The Home Depot provided supplies to build a wheelchair ramp.
Beyond material assistance, local clergy and lay ministers visited the couple and their daughters to ensure their spiritual wellbeing.
Knowing his family was in good hands, Carlos made substantial progress and was well enough to fly home in early June 2013. Before leaving, Carlos and Hilda visited Council 6108 to personally thank the Knights for all they had done. Carlos wished he could have done the same at every council that had helped them through this difficult time.
“They didn’t know me, but they knew I was a brother Knight so they took care of my family,” Carlos said. “What can I say? I feel good about that. It makes me proud to be part of this organization.”
That pride deepened when he arrived home and was embraced by his brother Knights from St. Ambrose Council, including Hilda’s uncle, Arthur Ferony, who first introduced Carlos to the Order. The Knights turned out in full force for Cristian’s funeral Mass at the family parish and were part of the escort to St. Charles/Resurrection Cemeteries in Farmingdale, N.Y.
Besides offering love and support, the council had also collected $40,000 to assist with the family’s substantial medical expenses.
When Knights across New York heard about the accident, they responded with the same zeal as their Floridian counterparts, with various councils and individual Knights contributing to an emergency relief fund for the family. Carlos’ council held a charity pasta night that raised $12,000, and local residents made additional donations.
Graziano and Grand Knight John Quinn of Council 1463 delivered the donations to Carlos and Hilda when they returned home.
“We sat and listened to their entire story,” said Graziano. “It was very hard to fight back the tears. … I was so proud that we could help, and they knew they didn’t walk through this alone. They had our support.”
In addition to the Knights, College Point-based organizations provided further financial assistance, with an online fundraiser netting more than $54,000 in donations for the family from 795 supporters.
Looking back on the past year since the accident, Carlos and Hilda know how much they have lost.
“We still cry every day. We grieve every day,” Carlos said as he gazed into Cristian’s room, which remains exactly as his son left it the day they went on vacation nearly a year ago.
But this family also knows how much they’ve been given as they count their blessings and learn to move forward.
“We give thanks because we’re still here, and we’ve been very blessed with all the Knights have done for us,” Carlos said.
Carlos will undergo additional surgeries to rebuild his abdominal wall later this year. He hopes one day he will be well enough to go back to work and to begin volunteering again with his council.
“I’ve never done something of this magnitude for someone else,” he said. “It feels great but I also want to find a way to pay it forward one day.”
MARIE ELENA GIOSSI is a staff writer for The Tablet, the newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.