Diana Hughes: A mission to support school pantries in Miami Dade

Diana Hughes had always known her life would have been drastically different had she not been adopted. Seven years ago, during a field trip organized by her former foster organization, Diana was reminded of the violence among the kids within the system. 

“I saw this little four-year-old boy that had a black eye because he got into a fight in the foster home,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that could have been me.’”

This was a pivotal moment for Diana, who’s now 17 years old. She couldn’t help but see herself in that child. It was one of the earliest moments she was motivated to help others.

Though she’s a high school junior with limited resources, Diana founded the Cuda Care Pantry and the School Pantry Coalition, which has become a transformative force that has impacted the lives of 15,000 students in 10 South Florida public schools. 

Born in July 2006, Hughes was a fighter from the start. Her biological mother struggled with cocaine addiction during pregnancy, causing her to develop pneumonia after birth. Luckily, Diana was adopted by Astrid Arraras and James Hughes, who have supported her in all her projects.

Hughes began her philanthropic career at an early age. At seven, she created a jewelry business to purchase care packages for families at the . At 12, she put together a dog treat business and donated all proceeds to the Humane Society. Diana’s parents made sure to attend events where their daughters interacted with other foster kids. 

“She developed a sensibility of gratitude from an early age,” said Astrid Arraras, Diana’s mother. “She developed it by herself and that is what influences everything that she does.”

Diana and her mom with supplies for CUDA Care Pantry (photo courtesy of  Diana Hughes).

During her years at Coral Reef Senior High, Diana continued to find ways to make positive changes in her community. As a co-president of the Parent Teacher Student Association, she witnessed how the school’s population of foster kids faced many challenges. This motivated Diana and her mom to offer a solution. 

“She told me, ‘Mommy, they don’t have the same love that I have had,’” Astrid recalls. 

In 2022, Diana created the Cuda Care Pantry, an open resource that offers students essential items such as personal hygiene products, second-hand uniforms, drinks and snacks at no cost.  Both students and school staff can take office supplies and snacks whenever they want. 

At first, Diana used her own money to fund the pantry. Additionally, her mom made sure to ask friends for extra folders, papers and notebooks they could donate. Today, the pantry does fundraisers and accepts donations through their GoFundMe.  

Diana remembers many rewarding moments that made her realize the positive impact of this project. One of them was during the summer of 2022, when an elderly woman approached her desperately asking for help.

The woman explained with tears in her eyes that she had recently lost her daughter and was unable to afford uniforms for her grandson. Hughes and her team listened to her story and made sure the woman left the school with all of her needs met.

I feel that was kind of the moment where I realized this is a real issue,” she said. “It was one of those core moments that makes you appreciate what you do.” Diana became a young leader, recruiting and training 20 student volunteers who dedicated their lunch time to participating in the project. She created three Youtube videos to train volunteers, where she carefully explains the pantry’s rules, inventory system, safety instructions, communications and events.

Secondhand uniforms at the Cuda care Pantry (photo courtesy of Diana Hughes).

She highlighted the importance of making every volunteer feel heard and comfortable to create a safe space for other students to voice their problems.

“A lot of my board members have been in those situations, that’s why they are so passionate,” she said. “That’s why every time they hear me speak about an opportunity to help others they jump on it.”

Hughes experienced many challenges as the supervisor of this pantry, which serves 200 students weekly. The two main challenges were keeping up with the demand and accessing funds through the school’s restrictions. 

“There’s a lot of restrictions, especially since we identified as a club, we are only allowed to do 10 fundraisers per year, which is limited,” she said. 

She managed to solve these problems by working together with students and the school’s administration. Additionally, she partnered with local non-profit foundations such as Andrea Believes and Amor y Fuerzas Honduras to collaborate in fundraising events.

Part of the board of CUDA Care Pantry  (photo courtesy of  Diana Hughes),

In 2023, after receiving a grant from Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Diana extended her vision beyond Coral Reef.  She founded the School Pantry Coalition, a student network that allowed her to offer guidance and support to new or existing pantries across 10 South Florida’s schools.

She provided care packages, supplies, and a data system to the schools’ administrations and PTSA clubs. Currently, the pantry is estimated to have provided food, toiletries and second-hand uniforms to at least 15,000 students. 

Diana has received various awards and recognitions for her impact on the community. In February, she was selected as the 2024 youth honoree by the Jason Taylor Foundation.  Additionally, Hughes received an award from the City of Doral for her work supporting school pantries in Miami Dade on Dec. 12, 2023.

Hughes is ready to embark on her college journey. She will graduate from high school this upcoming June and plans to pursue a degree in business administration and hospitality at Florida International University. Diana’s goal is to put her business mind and philanthropic vision together into a culinary academy that provides essential cooking skills for teenagers. To fund the whole project, she wants to work alongside agencies that work with foster children as well as other nonprofits and foundations.  

“I’d work directly with the foster-care system to give students this opportunity and network with nearby restaurants so they would be able to have full culinary experience under their belt as well as networking,” she said. 

She encourages young people to bring their ideas to life and not be afraid of what other people say. 

 “Even if you help a small corner of your community, it matters,” she said.

Grecia Pacheco is a senior majoring in digital journalism. Appassionate with the truth and the news reporting, her career pathway is orientated to politics and international relations based on her goal to keep people informed about the importance of democracy and its impact on modern society.

Jose Carlos Rodriguez is a junior majoring in Digital Communication and Media. After graduation, he plans to pursue a career as a reporter in the entertainment industry.