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Thumbs Up Mission spreads awareness on Keaton Cokers birthday
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Kohan Coker dons the T-shirt for his family's foundation, the Keaton Franklin Coker Foundation's Thumbs Up Mission. Kohan is the nephew of the late Keaton Coker, who died from brain cancer in 2014. - photo by Kristen Oliver

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To learn more about retreats or how to help Thumbs Up Mission, go to www.thumbsupmission.org.

October 5 is a special date to those involved with the Keaton Franklin Coker Foundation.

It was Keaton Coker’s birthday 21 years ago.

“Twenty-one years ago today, my third son was born,” said Sharon Coker, Keaton’s mother, on Wednesday. “We called him my little sweet pea. He would be 21 today, but I suppose you’d say he’s forever 18.”

Keaton Coker died in 2014 after a hard, two-year fight with brain cancer. The Flowery Branch native’s family started the foundation a year later, with the mission of supporting families and helping them make lasting memories during cancer treatment.

Wednesday, on what would have been Keaton Coker’s 21st birthday, Gainesville and Hall County celebrated him, his family and the legacy he left behind. Several businesses on the downtown square and across the county displayed “Thumbs Up Day” T-shirts in their windows or on their employees, and many offered a proceed of their sales for the foundation.

Christopher’s Tuxedo and Bridal on the downtown square displayed the shirts expertly pinned to resemble formal dresses, while employees at J.R. Crider’s donned the shirts.

Thumbs Up Mission is a facet of the foundation, providing volunteer-staffed retreats for cancer patients and families. Specifically, the mission works to support families of school-age children in which one of the parents is undergoing treatment.

“There are so many great organizations that will step in if a child has cancer, but what we found is there is nobody who steps in if mom or dad has cancer,” said Marybeth Cook, Keaton’s aunt. “So really, we just stepped into a place where nobody was, and we get to love on families and encourage them. We call it a vacation from cancer.”

Sharon Coker and her husband, Miles Coker, were Young Life leaders before they had children. They now partner with Young Life facilities, including the Sharptop Cove Young Life Camp in Jasper to provide these all-inclusive, fun family retreats.

Miles Coker said more than 31,000 volunteer hours were put into five retreats over the last 18 months to support these families.

Sharon Coker said the name “Thumbs Up Mission” was inspired by her son.

“When he got toward the end, he could not communicate well,” she said. “Thankfully, it was only a few days. We’d say to him, ‘How are you doing?’ And he’d just give us a thumbs up.”

After he passed away, his cousins made a picture slideshow of him, Sharon Coker said. It wasn’t until watching pictures after he died that his family realized there were “tons of pictures of him left,” giving them a thumbs up again.

Cook said they hope to make every Oct. 5 Thumbs Up Day, a day to increase awareness of the hometown foundation in Gainesville.

“It’s going well, but we want all the community to know and be aware,” Sharon Coker said. “A lot of people know about Thumbs Up, but not everybody. So we just want this to be about awareness.”

For more information about retreats or how to help Thumbs Up Mission, go to www.thumbsupmission.org.

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