A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Alumni Profile: Jay Coakey

By Damian Cristodero on April 26, 2017

When Jay Coakley, BSEd Physical Education ’78, MEd Leadership and Human Development ’94, began collecting hats to give to kids battling cancer who had lost their hair to chemotherapy, he expected the initial rush of donations to quickly slow.

Two years later, his charity, which by Coakley’s count has distributed more than 10,000 hats across the United States, Europe, and the Philippines, is a phenomenon. Ellie’s Hats also provides gift cards, iPads, crayons, and toys to hospitals and clinics nationwide.

Jay Coakley with Ellie Whitfield.

“It’s a snowball that just keeps getting bigger and better,” Coakley says.

It all began with a little girl named Ellie Whitfield. Coakley met Ellie in fall 2013 in his kindergarten physical education class at Woodburn Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia.

Ellie, with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, had lost her red hair to chemotherapy. “She was a pretty weak and frail kid,” Ellie’s mom, Jennica Whitfield, MPA ’03, recalls. “But she wanted to be at school.”

“Just a teeny little thing with no hair,” says Coakley. “She always wore hats.”

So for Christmas, Coakley began collecting hats for this spunky student, now a second-grader in remission after two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy. Between word of mouth, friends, and family, Coakley soon had almost 150 hats. After Ellie had her pick, Coakley distributed the rest to kids at the hospital where Ellie was being treated.

Things took off from there, with social media as the main driver. Now hat drives occur nationwide. Mason had one; so did the NHL’s Washington Capitals. Coakley and Ellie’s Hats also were part of the successful push to get Virginia to issue a pediatric cancer license plate.

“Our mission is to help the children and families that are in it right now,” says Coakley. “Just as important is raising awareness.”

Coakley has given Ellie about 100 hats, and she still wears them, though her hair has returned, Jennica says. A Scooby-Doo hat was always a favorite, as was a Princess Anna hat from the movie Frozen. Then there is the one with the red ponytail in the back that Ellie wore when she had no hair.

“He’s amazing,” Jennica says of Coakley. “Giving Ellie so many hats to choose from gave her a special confidence to go into school.”

“I just felt like I had to get her something to brighten her day,” says Coakley.

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