Couple behind gala planning find purpose after the pain of suicide


Two years ago, the unimaginable happened: Vladimir and Rachelle St. Phard’s teenage son Coby took his own life.

Coby St. Phard was a soccer standout at Notre Dame High School with a bright future. When he died in March 2016, the outgoing 18-year-old was less than three months away from graduating high school and had committed to play at Susquehanna University in central Pennsylvania.

The tragedy was an earthquake that reset the family’s future. They turned their grief into action, creating the nonprofit Fly High Coby to raise money for school scholarships, promote suicide prevention causes, and raise awareness about mental health issues.

Compassion during a painful time

They also stepped up their support of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton. The couple had attended the Guardian Angel Dinner Dance for years, at the invitation of George Reilly and Peter Haas, two longtime Catholic Charities supporters they consider dear friends. When Coby died, Reilly and Haas were among the first to rush to the family’s side to help them through their loss.

“I saw how much care they showed for us when we were hurting, which is really what our faith teaches us,” Vladimir said. “So when the opportunity came around two years ago, I joined the Board of Trustees.”

This year, the St. Phards agreed to lead planning efforts for Catholic Charities’ signature annual fundraiser by co-chairing the GADD committee. They consider such community service not only a duty of their Christian faith, but also a natural outcome of their family tragedy.

“When you go through a tragedy, people watch you. They watch what you say. They watch what you do,” Vladimir said. “So unfortunately, we have this platform. But it’s a testament to your faith what you choose to do with your platform.”

A shared passion for faith

Vladimir and Rachelle, who live in East Windsor, were college sweethearts who met in 1985 at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Both grew up with fathers who were pastors. They’re also devout members of 217church in Robbinsville, where Rachelle sings as a worship leader. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that they channeled their grief into community service and ministry.

Besides Catholic Charities and Fly High Coby, the couple strives in other ways to find purpose in their son’s death.

As an employee benefits health insurance broker, Vladimir works to incentivize employers to use benefits to ensure employees take care of themselves mentally, and not just physically.

And Rachelle meets weekly with mothers who have lost children to suicide or drug overdose.

“I really feel like God put those people in my lap,” she said. “My ministry with them happened organically as a result of Coby’s loss. I’m really trying to make a difference in the mental health arena.”

Besides Coby, the St. Phards also have a daughter Kyler, who’s now 17 and a talented, aspiring singer. In their spare time, Vladimir enjoys mixed martial arts, basketball, and indulging his inner “foodie,” while Rachelle is a self-proclaimed “beach bum” who enjoys exercise and spending time with friends.

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