The first time Keli Coughlin volunteered to help her father with his Celebrity Golf Classic tournament, she became hooked on the cause.
It was 1998 and Tom Coughlin was head football coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Two years earlier, he had started the Jay Fund to provide financial assistance to families of children who were battling cancer.
The golf tournament was the nonprofit’s annual fundraiser and Coughlin found herself profoundly moved by the mothers, fathers and children she met in conjunction with it.
Parents told her how grateful they were for the relief the charity provided, helping them pay bills during an overwhelmingly stressful time.
It helped some from having to choose between paying rent or buying medicine.
It kept others who had to leave their job to care for their child from worrying about how to pay for groceries.
“I got excited personally about doing more,” she said.
The Jay Fund grew quickly, thanks to the support of the Jacksonville community, Coughlin said, and she became increasingly involved as the scope of the all-volunteer organization expanded.
Then Tom Coughlin was fired by the Jaguars in 2002 and two years later, moved to New York to coach the New York Giants.
The fund’s board of directors had to decide if the Jay Fund could continue in Jacksonville — and should it?
A call from a pediatric oncologist from Wolfson Children’s Hospital made the decision easy.
The doctor called a board member and pleaded for the Jay Fund to stay, saying many Jacksonville families would be in trouble if it didn’t.
Coughlin said her father jokingly says his firing forced the board to decide whether to grow and continue to make a difference in Northeast Florida.
“The Jay Fund had nothing to do with who he coached. It was all about the families,” she said.
It was clear the organization could not continue as it had, with no base of operations and an all-volunteer crew, once Tom Coughlin left town.
The board decided to hire a full-time executive director in 2004 and Keli Coughlin was the natural choice.
She left her position as an athletic trainer at the University of North Florida to take the job and has not looked back.
Helping others “is tremendously rewarding,” she said, even more so now that she is a mother.
She and her husband, Chris Joyce, have two children, Marin, 8, and Clara, 7.
“Having my own children, I know that when my own kids are sick and I am at work, I am a little distracted,” she said. “I can’t really imagine the amount of support you must need if your child has cancer. I am glad we are able to let families know they are not alone.”
At first, she was the only employee, working with just a desk and a phone in the corner of donated office space in Ponte Vedra Beach.
As the charity grew, it hired several people, beginning with Program Director Rita Mailie in 2007.
It continued to expand in scope, to provide families practical and emotional support as well as financial.
The Jay Fund's five Northeast Florida staff members are now headquartered in a spacious corner office suite on the third floor of that building.
Decorated throughout with Jaguars memorabilia, the space is donated by the Lazzara family, the building’s owners.
Their generosity “makes a huge difference,” Coughlin said.
“The core of what we do comes from my dad and his work ethic — do everything first-class because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
But at the same time, “we pride ourselves on being frugal,” she added.
The oldest of four children, Keli Coughlin was in college when her father coached football at Boston College, where the idea for the Jay Fund began.
One of his players, Jay McGillis, developed leukemia and died eight months after his diagnosis.
“Jay was an overachiever. He wasn’t the strongest or fastest on the team, but he worked really hard,” Coughlin said.
Witnessing McGillis’ fight and the toll it took on his family, was moving for Coach Coughlin and his wife, Judy. So when his teammates asked if they could host a fundraising event, he agreed.
They presented the $50,000 raised to the family during a game and “that was an inspiration for my dad,” Coughlin said. “Jay left a huge impact on him. My parents knew if they ever had an opportunity to give back, that would be their cause.”
The first Celebrity Golf Classic, held in 1996 at Marsh Landing Country Club, raised about $35,000. The proceeds went to families that Wolfson Children’s Hospital identified as being in crisis.
Realizing in the pediatric oncology world there were more needs than those related to immediate household expenses, the charity added a financial coaching program three years ago to help with long term support. So when a child recovered, the family could do so with finances intact.
The Jay Fund also helps families emotionally by hosting a dozen or so events throughout the year that provide them opportunities to connect socially, including an upcoming Valentine’s Day party.
It also supports treatment centers at Wolfson and Nemours Children’s Clinic by providing iPads, video games, art therapy and psychological services.
About 80 percent of children with childhood cancer survive, Keli Coughlin said, but for grieving families, the charity also hosts a Remembrance Weekend, which members of the McGillis family still attend.
When Tom Coughlin was in New York, he also opened an office there, with a small staff, and the Jay Fund now holds three major fundraising events a year.
Two are in Jacksonville, and the funds raised at those benefit Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia families. The Celebrity Golf Classic is now held every May at TPC Sawgrass, the week after The Players Championship, and a Wine Tasting Gala is held in March.
To date, the organization has provided $7.2 million to those in need.
Tom Coughlin was recently re-hired by the Jaguars, as executive vice president, so his daughter is delighted to have her parents back in town. But she said he never really left the Jay Fund. “His physical presence will now allow him to be more engaged with the Jacksonville part,” she said. “But he has stayed very involved over the years.”
But Tom Coughlin gives Keli the credit for the Jay Fund’s success.
“She made it what it is today, an organization that has helped thousands of families tackle cancer over the last twenty years,” he said. “It wouldn’t be what it is without Keli.”