At age 16, a bizarre seizure came on suddenly while Keaton was at church with his family. Other than the occasional stomach virus or cold, Keaton had always been incredibly healthy. The diagnosis felt agonizingly slow in coming, but when it was confirmed as brain cancer, the family looked in vain for the “returns and exchanges” counter.
The next two years were a blur of medical activity, both at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. During those two years, it became clear that God had graced the Coker family and the Gainesville community with someone extraordinary. Keaton was seen in a different light. He brought light to every dark corner that cancer tried to produce.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:5
Keaton was an offensive lineman on his high school football team. His role was not glamorous; his job was just to block. He created holes for running backs, and protected his quarterback so others could score. He created holes in that darkness the same way he created holes in defensive lines. He continued playing football through cancer treatment. In fact, he never missed a practice or a game because he “just didn’t feel good.” On the days that chemo and radiation took his energy away, Keaton simply asked God for extra strength.
His coaches marveled. His teammates and classmates rallied. His family rode his coat tails and cheered their hearts out. TV stations and newspapers did stories on his remarkable toughness. College football players supported him through social media
Keaton was fiercely protective of his family. He wanted to protect them from the darkness of fear that cancer brings into a household. He stayed positive for them. He wanted his older brothers, Karson and Kanler, to keep moving forward and excel in their careers. He continued to support them with his presence at their events during cancer treatment. He kept his faith strong. He wanted his parents to know that he was going to be alright, no matter where the path of cancer led. He protected them by being a positive and courageous son.
One of our favorite stories about Keaton epitomizes his journey through cancer. It was customary for his football team to end Summer Workouts with a difficult 5:00 am run up Currahee Mountain. After finishing the run, Keaton stood tall, looked back down the mountain and without hesitation headed back down. Keaton had noticed that several of the younger lineman were struggling to reach the top. He endured more strenuous exercise to encourage and run alongside his teammates. Keaton didn’t do it for the attention. He did it because he understood his role in this life. Keaton’s purpose was to carry God’s light everywhere he went, and allow that light to impact others. There is NO DOUBT he fulfilled his purpose completely.
We wish that God had allowed Keaton to live a long life on this earth. However, we find comfort in this truth from scripture: “For David, after he had served God’s purpose in his own generation, died and was buried with his ancestors.” - Acts 13:36.
We look forward to a reunion with Keaton when Jesus returns. That reunion is a promise and we firmly believe it. Until that day, we will continue Keaton’s ministry through Thumbs Up Mission. We will block for other families journeying through cancer and we’ll shine some light in the darkness.
HOW THUMBS UP WAS FORMED
As the Cokers reflected on their two-year journey through cancer, they were reminded of many blessings along the way. One stood out brighter than all the others. In March of 2014, Keaton was given a wish from Make-A-Wish Georgia. Desiring to spend time golfing and relaxing on the beach with his brothers, he wished for a trip to Jamaica. For five glorious days the family was able to play, laugh, and banish all cancer treatment activities from their minds. The Cokers treasure the memories of that trip, and now that Keaton is gone the value of that treasure is priceless. They will never forget the time spent together and will always be grateful for it.
One day during a conversation with Miles' accountability group, God began the first nudges toward the creation of Thumbs Up Mission. The group had asked him what meant most to his family on their journey with cancer and in response, Miles told story after story from Keaton's trip to Jamaica. Soon Miles began to talk loosely about the possibility of starting a foundation in Keaton's honor, but couldn't quite decide upon the right focus or direction for the organization. The men began to pray that an idea would take shape. Just days later, the Cokers received a phone call from a friend of a friend. The friend, a young wife and mother named Ashlee, had just been diagnosed with the same kind of brain cancer that Keaton had. Miles and Sharon spoke with the family and shared what they had learned from personal research about treatment options, but as the conversations continued the biggest thought that ran through their minds was, “That family needs time away together!” Understanding that Ashlee wouldn't qualify for a wish from a children's wish granting organization, Miles and Sharon found a gap they believe God was asking them to fill.
Keaton taught us many things during his 6,858 days on earth, but generosity was near the top. His birthday and Christmas money repeatedly got shoved into a dresser drawer for safe keeping; then, when a worthy cause moved his emotions he would empty his money drawer completely. All who knew him marveled at that trait and learned from his example. Thus, it seemed fitting that as we prepared to gift Ashlee and her family precious time away from cancer together, we used Keaton's life savings to do so. Witnessing Ashlee and her family come home restored and full of hope was confirmation from the Lord that we were meant to continue creating ways for families battling cancer to get away together in honor of Keaton. God began to stir a strong passion in the Coker family's hearts to give to other families what they had been given regardless of the age of the cancer patient. Simply stated, they wanted to come alongside families walking through a cancer journey to help them make memories that transcend time.
As our organization evolved, we began doing this by hosting weekend retreats at family-friendly resorts filled with comedy teams, musical entertainment, and inspirational speakers. We supply laughter when it is in short supply, infuse hope when circumstances look bleak, and provide families time together when cancer has stolen too much. Toward the end of his life, when cancer had stolen Keaton's ability to communicate verbally, he would respond to questions with a smile in his eye and the “thumbs up” sign. We loved his positive spirit, and we want our foundation to carry that positive focus into a world teeming with hurting families. Thus, Thumbs Up Mission was born.
Meet The Team
At the helm of our organization is Keaton’s dad, Miles Coker. Miles is a former college football player and brings that passion and mental toughness to the Thumbs Up team. He’s an entrepreneur with over 40 years of business experience. He is the owner of Coker Equipment Company in Gainesville, Georgia which leases heavy equipment to the public. Miles also owns Emerald Investment Company which specializes in commercial real estate holdings. His success in the business world, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his commitment to follow Jesus paved the way for Thumbs Up Mission. Miles is a courageous leader who is very accustomed to accomplishing things that have never been attempted. Retreats are very personal for him, and he makes it his mission to meet and encourage each family we serve. He takes no salary for his work at Thumbs Up Mission.
In a supporting role to Miles and Sharon is our Co-Founder, Marybeth Cook. Marybeth is Keaton’s aunt and is also passionate about serving families impacted by cancer. Her mom died of breast cancer when Marybeth was in first grade. She serves our guests with great empathy and authenticity. With the help of a dedicated group of volunteers, she handles many of the behind-the- scenes details leading up to each retreat. She preserves Keaton’s courageous journey through cancer by sharing his story from the stage at our retreats. Marybeth amassed seventeen years of experience in Corporate America before opting out for full-time motherhood. She has an MBA in accounting and brings structure and strong internal controls to the leadership team of Thumbs Up Mission. Marybeth takes no salary for her work at Thumbs Up Mission.
Keaton’s mom, Sharon, graduated from Georgia Southern University with a degree in Middle Grades Education. Before achieving her dream of being a full-time mom, Sharon taught a variety of subjects, including math, to 6th graders - which proves that she’s not afraid of anything! Her meticulous attention to detail serves our organization well as she works closely with our independent accountant making sure that every donated dollar is stewarded well. Because Sharon has walked the halls of children’s hospitals as a mom, she is an invaluable source of encouragement to our retreat guests who are in similar circumstances. She has walked through the fire and has kept the faith. In addition to spending time with her grandkids, Sharon is active in her local church and works tirelessly in unheralded ways to support the ministry of Thumbs Up. She takes no salary for her work at Thumbs Up Mission.
As a cancer survivor himself, Dick is uniquely positioned to recruit families to attend our retreats. He has built a network of Cancer Navigators and other medical professionals who refer families to our organization. He screens families for eligibility and in the process often becomes their new best friend. He is an ordained minister who holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Additionally, he holds Graduate Certificates in Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Direction. Not only is Dick the unofficial “staff pastor” of Thumbs Up Mission, but he also brings other valuable skills to the staff. He worked for nine years in the Young Life organization building strong teams and served as GM of American Coach Lines. He’s a source of encouragement to everyone he meets.