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Thumbs Up Mission hosts first retreat for families dealing with cancer
Nonprofit organization founded in Keaton Coker's honor
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Miles and Sharon Coker show a collage of their son, Keaton, who inspired them to start Thumbs Up Mission in his honor. Keaton died in July 2014 after a two-year fight against brain cancer. A couple of months after Keaton’s death, the Cokers founded the nonprofit organization to help the families of adult cancer patients. The nonprofit had its first retreat in May at SharpTop Cove resort in Jasper. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Thumbs Up Mission

What: A nonprofit organization focused on helping families that has a parent who is diagnosed with cancer. The group raises money to send families on once-in-a-lifetime trips and sponsors a retreat for families dealing with cancer.

Next fundraiser: 3-on-3 basketball tournament, Aug. 8, at Lakeview Academy, 796 Lakeview Drive, Gainesville

Next retreat: Sept. 4-7

To donate: Go online to its website or send a check to Thumbs Up Mission, P.O. Box 2697, Gainesville, GA 30503.

Contact: thumbsupmission.org or Thumbs Up Mission Facebook page

“Cancer is kind of like a hurricane,” Miles Coker said.

And the 53-year-old father of three boys knows what he is talking about from first-hand experience.

He was devastated when the doctor uttered the six-letter word in 2012. But it was not him facing the deadly disease; it was his son, Keaton.

Keaton was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 16. It was the summer before his junior year, and the young teenager was looking forward to playing football for Flowery Branch High School.

Keaton took the news in stride and never strayed from his routine, including football. His parents, Miles and Sharon Coker, said their son never missed a game or practice. The teenager also continued with his school work despite the insurmountable odds facing him such as chemotherapy treatments, brain surgeries and trips to doctors in Atlanta and Baltimore.

Keaton graduated from high school in May 2014. Less than two months later, he died at age 18.

His parents said their youngest son’s unwavering perseverance and faith kept Keaton positive throughout his battle. His determination inspired his parents to create a foundation to help other families dealing with a loved one’s diagnosis. The Gainesville couple founded Thumbs Up Mission in 2014.

The nonprofit organization’s mission is to help families with a parent suffering from cancer or other diseases by funding trips to faraway places. It is similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation but in reverse. While the national organization grants a wish to a child suffering from a deadly illness, Thumbs Up assists families in which a parent is battling the sometimes fatal disease.

Miles and Sharon said several organizations focus on children suffering from cancer, but there is a lack of organizations with the goal of helping parents. They decided to fill that void.

Along with raising money to fund trips, the Cokers established a weekend retreat for families dealing with cancer. Families fill their days with activities such as ziplining and swimming instead of hospital and doctor visits and chemotherapy treatments and its side effects. One or two-parent homes with an adult diagnosed with cancer who have children between the ages of 5 and 18 qualify to attend.

“(The retreat) lets them get a grip on life,” Miles Coker said, explaining when a loved one is diagnosed, the world can feel like it is spinning out of control.

Relaxing retreat

Gainesville woman Lynn Weber and her family were one of the lucky ones to participate in the retreat in May.

“They are really a blessing,” said Weber, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer in December and will finish her treatment in April 2016.

Weber and her family members said they were rejuvenated after attending the four-day retreat. They also felt insurmountable joy during their time at SharpTop Cove resort in Jasper.

Weber’s 9-year-old son, Ben, was especially excited about spending time with college football players. Keaton’s older brother, Kanler, is a football player at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. A few of his teammates volunteered to help at the retreat.

With them in attendance, Ben walked away with not only his memories but a hat autographed by the college athletes.

Weber said she enjoyed watching and participating in the fun with her family. Plus, she said she could relax, knowing her children were in the safe hands of the volunteers when she wasn’t keeping a close eye on them.

“It’s been really tough (on the kids),” Weber said.

The 43-year-old woman also relished the time of sitting outside without worrying about germs or IV chemotherapy bags hanging over her head.

Weber credited her faith for her ability to remain strong during her medical treatments for ovarian cancer, but the retreat has helped her maintain a positive outlook on life.

“I don’t know how things will end up for me,” she said. “But I know I want to be the best mom, the best wife, the best sister, the best daughter, the best friend that I can be.”

Making a new friend was a welcomed bonus for Weber. The Gainesville woman said she met another mother struggling with the same illness. The pair bonded, talking and praying together.

But this battle is not a new one for the Weber family. Weber’s daughter, Anna Lee Weber, was diagnosed with cancer when she was only 3« years old. She survived her battle with cancer and is now a thriving 12-year-old who will attend North Hall Middle School.

“She really showed us and taught us how to be a fighter,” Lynn Weber said.

But now the tween girl is on the other side. She now watches her mother fight a similar battle.

This time, though, the Thumbs Up Mission has provided a brief but welcome refuge.

Miles Coker, founder and CEO of Thumbs Up Mission, has been a friend of Joe Weber, Lynn Weber’s husband, for a long time. And when the Webers learned of the Cokers’ mission with Thumbs Up, they signed up for the retreat without knowing what to expect.

Rounding up retreat families, volunteers

This is not the normal procedure for families to acquire services from Thumbs Up Mission.

Usually doctors nominate their patients and families to receive help from the nonprofit, especially the summer retreat. Miles Coker also attends oncology group meetings to offer Thumbs Up services. He even sometimes calls the family personally and asks if they want to join the fun.

Coker estimates 70 percent of families accepts his offer of assistance. Those who decline usually don’t wish to leave home without their doctors or want to give their spot to another needy family.

But some answers even surprise Coker. One woman asked if the retreat would be “depressing,” Coker said, laughing as he recalled the story.

“I said ‘It’s going to be the opposite of depressing,” he said.

She agreed to the trip, which marked its first run this year. Twenty-two families registered to spend four days at SharpTop Cove resort.

But Coker was apprehensive, since it was brand-new to the families and a new endeavour for the Cokers along with 125 volunteers who helped.

“They were really the guinea pigs,” Coker said.

One volunteer, Travis Barth, devoted part of his summer to give back to the Coker family.

“(The Cokers) have been like a second family to me and a ton of other people in the community,” he said, adding he was a close friend of Keaton’s.

“(Keaton) was just a great guy,” Barth said. “He was really nice and could make anybody’s day better with a goofy joke, or just a smile.”

Karson Coker, Keaton’s oldest brother and a children’s minister, plans to bring 40 high school and college aged volunteers with him to the second retreat scheduled for Labor Day weekend.

‘It was so special’

The volunteers this summer helped as the retreat seemed to go off without a hitch.

Families from all across Georgia arrived at the retreat facilities to partake of its many offerings. Families were lodged in four guest houses, with each family having its own private rooms.

Once settled, the families hiked on the mountain trails, swam in a lake, or ziplined across the property and into the water.

Lynn Weber and her son, Drew, ziplined together and created lasting memories. And the entire Weber clan danced the night away.

“It was so special,” Lynn Weber said. “(The Cokers) went above and beyond. They nailed it!”

Fun and games were not the only amenities at the retreat. To help families feel more secure, Coker employed a medical staff, including an oncologist and a few nurses, on site to tend to any needs. Coker included this specialty service since families were concerned about the health risk associated with being away from their doctors.

As the retreat came to a close, Coker could see the impact of the retreat. He said he saw a few guests teary-eyed as they packed their belongings, not wanting to leave their newfound sanctuary.

Some of those guests plan to return next time, except it will be as volunteers instead of participants.

“About five families have offered to come back as volunteers,” Coker said.

He said volunteers are rewarded when families are all smiles and laughter fills the rooms.

Now that the Cokers have one retreat under their belt, they know what to offer future guests.

“(The first retreat) really blew away everyone’s expectations,” Coker said, adding a questionnaire filled out by guests received mostly positive feedback.

And with only few hiccups, he already has a plan to fix them for the next time.

The next retreat

The second retreat scheduled for Sept. 4-7.

An afternoon family movie is part of those plans to cater to guests who may be too tired to engage in the more strenuous activities.

The Varsity restaurant off Jimmy Carter Boulevard plans to donate food to feed 300 for a cookout.

The only speed bump the organization faces is the availability dates at SharpTop Cove. Because of its popularity, several other nonprofits and other organizations book the retreat in advance.

To combat this, the Cokers have mulled the idea of building their own retreat. However, the nonprofit is a short on funds.

“If anyone wants to donate the land and build the place, we’re open to it!” Sharon Coker exclaimed.

The organization’s costs are paid through personal donations and fundraisers, such as the 3-on-3 basketball tournament Aug. 8. It helps defray the $75,000 for a retreat. And costs will only rise as time goes by.

“More people are getting cancer every day,” Miles Coker said.

That means more people will need their help. Donations may be sent to: PO Box 2697, Gainesville, GA 30503. Or visit the website, www.thumbsupmission.org to make an online donation.

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