Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Michigan is proud to celebrate Local Black Heroes in honor of Black History Month. Please join us on social media and throughout the month on our website to learn more about the impact local heroes have in your community.
Vernon Coakley Jr. is the newly appointed Chief of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS), and KDPS’ first Black chief. He is a husband, father, protector and role model, who defied the odds to get where he is today.
Growing up in Detroit, Coakley had very few positive influences in his life and grew up in a family steeped with abuse and divorce. As the oldest, he recalls taking on the role of defender, wanting to guard and protect his mother and siblings.
Early Mentors and Football
Coakley’s grandmother gave much needed advice and provided a positive influence on his life. While listening to the Detroit Tigers on the radio, she taught him how to keep score. This was the beginning of his lifelong passion for sports. She also influenced his “most important foundation:” his faith. She was his role model during times he needed it most.
As his passion for sports grew, Coakley remembers the crucial mentoring of his high school football coach, Ernie Thomas, at Detroit Cooley High School. After an injury delayed his high school football career, Thomas worked with Coakley to transition him from a defensive player to an offensive player. “Coach Thomas was like that for many…” Coakley recalls, referring to his coach’s dedication to the players and staff.
Along with other athletic ventures, the young Coakley was part of the Detroit Police Athletic League which uses sports to help youth “find their greatness.” Coakley looked up to the men in this program as they, “…Continued to inspire and deepen my love for sports.”
With a family that didn’t ‘have‘ a lot, Coakley leveraged his athletic abilities to further education. He was heavily recruited by several Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but Coach Thomas encouraged him to look at schools with more diversity among students. Coakley attended Western Michigan University (WMU) playing football and went on to earn his degree in education. He strived to grow as a player and a person. This was his way to ‘have’ a lot and invest in his future.
In the Classroom and On the Field
Coakley didn’t plan to be in law enforcement, or even education. He wanted to play professional football. This goal never came to fruition. However, his athletic experiences played a pivotal role into making him into the man he is today.
He was a Head Start teacher for three years, teaching and molding youth in Detroit. He then coached football at different levels, mentoring his players.
“Being vulnerable, putting in the time and work, and celebrating their efforts and accomplishments allowed my players to let their guard down,” Coakley says. He’s still in contact with some of those young folks. He affirms, “Reaching back and teaching young people is where I belong.”
Transition to Law Enforcement
In the early 1990s Coakley finally pursued his career in law enforcement. He served in the Detroit Police Department for five years before moving to Kalamazoo in 1998.
Over 20 years later, he was promoted to Chief of KDPS, the force’s first Black chief. After being sworn in, Coakley mentions “…Jesus helped me understand what the word ‘peacemaker’ means. It includes things like legitimacy, equity, diversity, inclusion, social justice and dialog.” To Coakley, these are the foundations of change, which is needed now more than ever.
“The elixir is living a life that’s bigger than you.” –Viola Davis
For Coakley, life is about, “How can we help? Who can we help? How can we make a change?” A quote that inspires him is Viola Davis’s, “The elixir is living a life that’s bigger than you.”
Coakley is dedicated to reaching back to help anyone in need. After he is gone, he wants people to remember him as “someone that lived a life greater than himself.” He works towards building this legacy every day.
Find Local Black Heroes throughout the month of February on social media and on our website and visit ThinkBigToday.org/Volunteer for more information about how you can ignite the power and potential of youth in Southwest Michigan.