Thanks to the encouragement of a friend, Jeff Coaxum discovered a volunteer opportunity that enriched him and his family more than he thought. A lot more.
Jeff Coaxum watched his best friend get punched in the eye in gym class. He was a sixth grader at the time and his friend, Rod, was assaulted for no other reason than his immense stature; other kids wanted to test their toughness and try to drop the big kid with one punch.
It’s a vivid memory and characterizes one of several challenges Jeff had as a youngster trying to navigate the sometimes tough environment of Crown Heights, Brooklyn; where the sight of fellow students getting hassled and accosted for their belongings was not uncommon. Always an above-average student, Jeff saw his grades slip, given the state of his surrounding environment and various distractions at hand.
His parents eventually moved to a more upscale neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn and Jeff attended a different, safer school. His grades recovered and this along with exposure to various professionals within his community started him on a journey that would eventually see him become a Senior Vice President at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in Boston.
Luck. It’s impossible to not attribute at least a portion of Jeff’s success to good fortune. Granted, he can ascribe the lion’s share to his stable upbringing, the academic competition between him and his brothers, two working parents and his personal work ethic. But were it not for that simple move to Flatbush, which exposed Jeff to people with different levels of education and professional experience and opened up a breadth of new choices, his life may have been drastically different.
He is quick to admit this: sometimes you need to intersect with the right people at the right time.
“Success can be luck as well as desire,” he says. “Being in those positive environments showed me that there could be more to life.”
Fast-forward to today, through his high school education and receiving an accounting degree at City University of New York (CUNY), Baruch College; a Masters degree from Fordham Business School; five years at Chase; and nearly two decades at Brown Brothers Harriman, and, through United Way and the urging of Page DeGregorio, a work colleague active in the MLH program, Jeff Coaxum found a way to offer another person the fortunate intersection he experienced.
Actually it’s two people: Jason Martinez, a sophomore at Bentley University and one of United Way’s Marian L. Heard Scholars and Jeff’s 15 year-old son Brandon. Since last fall, Jeff has volunteered as an e-coach, a virtual mentor who offers advice and encouragement to Jason. He plugged into the program when a friend from BBH and current MLH mentor alerted him to the opportunity.
The mentors are one of the major benefits (along with the $10,000 scholarship) of the MLH Scholar program, and gives the scholars–some who are the first in their family to attend college–a stable, guiding force through their four years.
“Through this experience, I’ve come to understand the value of United Way,” Jeff says, “and how they can be that collective voice for others that can do good in the community.”
It wasn’t long into his new role before Jeff realized that mentorship held the potential for something great and unique; Jason could be a role model for his own son.
“Brandon is getting exposure to someone who’s figuring it out,” Jeff says. “Jason is showing how you can become successful in this life.”
“Brandon and I connected right away because it was just two years ago that I was in high school and had experienced everything he is at the moment,” says Jason. “I was able to give him great tips on how to prioritize and manage his time wisely in order to still have a healthy balance between his academics, sports, and social life. And for me, Jeff has served as my role model. His business career has served as a blueprint for my own business journey.”
Jeff, Brandon and Jason get together for meals, swap texts and emails and even play some basketball together. The relationship that the three have forged goes beyond a linear mentor/mentee string–it is very much like an extended family.
“I’m not going to say this is the only way,” he says. “But, for me, I’ve drawn on my experiences to help craft a vision for a good life. And whether it’s through volunteerism or in my own family, I’m able to contribute to the community and pay it forward and my son can learn from it.”
There is still a ways to go. Brandon has his high school years in front of him and Jason has passed the mid-point of his college career. Life awaits for the two young men. And Jeff watches with great interest.
For now, however, one thing is certain: they are lucky to have each other.
Interested in learning more about the MLH Scholars program? Email Dahlia Bousaid today at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read some of the scholars’ amazing stories here.
And check out this video of last year’s scholars learning they’d been accepted to the program–in real time!