At a New York hospital in December, Tom Coughlin visited a 10-year-old boy named Joey who had just learned he had cancer. He and his mother were so stunned by the news they emotionally shut down.
“She was worn out and he was scared,” Coughlin said.
They did not want to talk to anyone. But Coughlin was not just anyone. The first Jacksonville Jaguars coach had just ended his Super Bowl-winning tenure with the New York Giants.
“As luck would have it, Joey is a football fan,” he said. “I sat and talked with him for about 20 minutes and assured him that he could get through this and be back on the football field in no time. When I left, Joey fell asleep, but his mom told us when he woke up he said to her, ‘OK, I can do this.’ That’s what this work is all about — support and encouragement.”
The work Coughlin was talking about was not football, but the Jay Fund, which he founded in 1996 to help families with children battling cancer. With the guiding theme of “be there,” the nonprofit has since provided about $8 million in financial assistance and other support to about 4,000 families in Jacksonville, New York and New Jersey.
The fund, which is headquartered in Jacksonville Beach but also has an office in Bloomfield, N.J., will have its 22nd annual Celebrity Golf Classic Sunday and Monday in Ponte Vedra Beach.
Although the tournament and an annual January wine gala have become prominent local fundraisers over the years, the fund is relatively low-key, with few public events. But with Coughlin back in town as the Jaguars’ vice president of football operations, the fund plans to build a higher Northeast Florida profile by telling more stories about what it does and who it serves.
The goal is to “generally increase awareness of our work and thereby continue to never turn a family away who needs our help,” said executive director Keli Coughlin Joyce, one of Coughlin’s four children. “We see the demand continue to grow and want to always be able to ‘be there.’ ”
The first Jay Fund story was the life and death of Jay McGillis, who was a Boston College football player when Coughlin was the Eagles’ coach. In 1991 McGillis was diagnosed with leukemia while he was on the team and died eight months later at age 21.
“He was a humble young man, loved by all, extremely hard-working, an overachiever,” Coughlin said.
Coughlin said he saw the “emotional and financial devastation” the cancer wrought on the the player’s parents, Pat and John McGillis. Despite their grief, they “tried to keep a stiff upper lip and be courageous,” he said.
He also saw the community come together.
“Being able to witness all the love and support the Boston College community provided Jay and his family touched [wife] Judy and our children in a very profound way,” Coughlin said. “People dropped everything for Jay; they quit their jobs to be with him day in and day out.”
The first fundraiser for the McGillis family was a “lift-a-thon” — players secured pledges from friends and family based on the maximum weight they could lift — that raised $50,000.
“That was the beginning of it all,” Coughlin said.
When he arrived in Jacksonville to coach the Jaguars in 1995, he brought the idea for the Jay Fund with him. The first golf tournament was in 1996 and raised about $34,000. The 2016 event brought in $554,000. The wine gala, begun in 2005, raised $280,000 this year.
Such fundraising has helped families pay household expenses and established a financial literacy program and college scholarships for them, Coughlin Joyce said.
The fund also provides emotional support through annual parties and special events for the families, child psychology services, art therapy, support groups and other programs. In addition, the fund provides activities, games and other distractions at the clinics and hospitals where children are being treated to create a “more pleasant … environment.”
“Getting to help these kids and their families with financial and emotional needs is both incredibly fulfilling and incredibly humbling,” she said. “The kids are very inspiring and there is something to be said about the privilege of watching despair turn to hope.”
One of those children is Destiny Daniels, a Jacksonville 10-year-old who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in April 2016 but is now in remission. Her initial hospital stay lasted for one month; then came chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.
Her mother, Naw-am Daniels, said she and husband Ira Daniels first reacted to her daughter’s diagnosis with disbelief. “It was overwhelming. Your life kind of stops.”
Then life became filled with doctors and hospitals. Little brother Desmond, now 2, provided a joyful distraction for Destiny, Daniels said. “Every time she saw him she perked up,” she said.
Naw-am Daniels stopped working to care for Destiny and keep up with her many medical appointments and home schooling, which led to a financial strain. But other patients told them about the Jay Fund, which ultimately paid their mortgage and electric bills for a time.
“They helped us out during a time of crisis, when we lost that income,” Ira Daniels said.
The 25th anniversary of Jay McGillis’ death is July 3.
“I don’t think any of us conceived the reach our efforts would have or how many patients and families it would actually touch,” Coughlin said. “I think Jay would be proud of his legacy. … This foundation is truly the silver lining of his battle.”
Every year the fund raises more money and helps more families and will continue to do so. Separate endowments have been established for the Florida and New Jersey programs to strengthen their financial footing.
“We always knew we wanted to help families who, like the McGillises, were faced with the unthinkable diagnosis of a child with cancer,” Coughlin said. “The Jay Fund’s mission has always been to be there for families so they can be there for their child battling cancer. And that won’t ever change.”
When he left Jacksonville in 2003 to coach the Giants, he signalled his ongoing commitment to North Florida by having the fund’s main office stay put. Coughlin Joyce took over as executive director the following year. Regardless of where Coughlin was coaching, he has attended the annual tournament and wine gala.
“We are so proud of the work we are doing in our communities, and I want to recognize and thank our supporters for helping us ease the burden on these families,” he said. “We are helping families in our own backyard who need on-the-ground support, and we are so fortunate to be able to provide that support.
“We can’t do it alone and I am grateful for each and every person who has joined the team. I’m truly proud of the fact that we’ve been able to help families and put smiles on the faces of young children with cancer.”
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109