CINCINNATI - Anyone who researches the generation born after 1980 will find a disproportionate number of articles on two topics: Those accusing millennials of possessing a host of less than desirable characteristics, and those written by millennials themselves, defending their generation from harsh criticism.
This five-part series takes a closer look at local millennials, who are defining their generation and setting a precedent for others to follow. MORE: Who are the millennials?
At the age of six, William (Will) Cox II and Jonathan Boyle became inseparable. Dr. Randy Cox, Will’s father, said he often felt he had two sons because they were always together. He said shortly thereafter, Justin Goodall joined the crew.
“In the early years they were always on the same basketball team because they didn’t want to be separated from each other and that probably continued up until high school,” Cox said. “So they’ve all been playmates and best of friends since first grade.”
At the end of his junior year at Princeton High School, Cox was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma Brain Tumor (DIPG), more commonly known as pediatric brain cancer . Two months after graduation in July 2013, he died at the age of 18. Goodall said the disease seemed to take hold suddenly.
“He was doing fine and I was thinking, he’s going to get better,” Goodall said. “I do social media at work and I was on my Instagram and I saw William Cox RIP. I’d left my phone in my car, so when I got to my car, I had all these texts. I just broke down and cried.”
At just 19 years old, Boyle and Goodall were faced with a grown-up tragedy.
The next morning, Boyle, Goodall and another childhood friend Marc Ferguson decided to start the #iWill Awareness Foundation in Cox’s honor. The young men created the non-profit organization to raise awareness and find a cure for pediatric brain cancer .The American Brain Tumor Association reported approximately 4,300 children under the age of 20 were diagnosed with brain tumors in 2013. To date, the iWill Awareness Foundation has collected more than $8,000 in Cox’s memory. The foundation has applied for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status.
“We didn’t want Will’s legacy to die,” Goodall said. “You see young kids dying every day, and then everybody forgets about them. We didn’t want that to happen to Will. I think we just created it to make Will’s legacy known and to inform people about pediatric brain cancer, how serious it is and there’s not a cure for it.”
Self-absorbed or inspired?
It’s impossible to ignore the role of social media in the lives of millennials. Besides posting frequent selfies on every site imaginable, there’s a running account (with photos) of every activity in each day.
The 2010 Pew Research Center study of the generation reported three of four millennials are active on social media sites. The act of looking to acquire friends, followers and "likes," has led many to accuse the generation of being self-absorbed.
Boyle and Goodall would appear to be the opposite.
Boyle said losing Cox changed their lives. For its first fundraiser, the iWill foundation chose a basketball game at Princeton High School in November 2013.
- MORE: Basketball game to raise awareness of pediatric brain cancer in memory of Princeton HS student
Boyle said the organizers found it fitting as basketball was the sport Cox loved. Boyle said they plan to keep the ball rolling with a number of events this summer to raise both money and awareness. He said he’s touched by the generosity and support they’ve received from their peers.
“So that’s just really the mindset, it’s what I’m doing for others, it’s not about me,” he said. “It’s just having the will to inspire other people: that’s really the main thing. I’ve always been an athlete, but now I have something I can accomplish besides sports. I’ve been more focused on helping others.”
Making the connection
Millennials are frequently accused of being disengaged and poor communicators, spending far too much time staring at their phones. A 2002 Stanford University study found constant use of electronic devices diminishes the ability to create of necessary neural pathways for the development of social skills.
However, through social media sites, millennials connect to their friends, knowing their activities and whereabouts far more than any previous generation. In reality, millennials actually communicating more, simply using a different platform.
In terms of social media, Boyle said he primarily sees it as a way for people to share what they’ve learned and their experiences. He said there would be no iWill Foundation without social media as it’s been the foundation's primary source of communication.
- MORE: Princeton High School students use social media to remember a friend, raise brain cancer awareness
“For the foundation game, it wouldn’t have blown up as much without social media promoting and just the little things by our peers,” he said “So that definitely made a difference. So it’s true that
social media really can present more of a quality picture to people.”
- Follow the #iWill Awareness Foundation on Twitter: @Official_IWill
The definition of friendship
Dr. Cox disagrees millennials are a generation obsessed with itself. As a physician in Cincinnati for the last 20 years, Cox said he felt compelled to start a charity in his son’s honor. When Boyle and Goodall approached him with the idea for iWill, the three joined forces to organize the foundation. He said the young men illustrate the true friendship, standing by his son even during the most difficult times. He said they never fail to impress him with their commitment, drive and dedication.
“It’s a lot of work, I really commend them,” he said. “Whenever I need them, they’re there. We have meetings, we talk, they call 24/7. If I need something they get it for me, even if it’s a shoulder to cry on sometimes. They’re always there.”
Next year, Goodall plans to transfer from Miami University of Middletown to the University of Cincinnati, where Boyle is enrolled. The two plan to not only bring the foundation to campus, but eventually grow the organization on a national level. Goodall says he rarely listens to skeptics who say they won't follow through, as he knows of the commitment both he and Boyle have made in their friend's memory.
“When we first started, people were like this is nice thing for them to do for their friend and they didn’t take us very seriously,” he said. “But when we got the foundation game, they kind of realized: wow, they’re really trying to do this, they’re really trying to make a foundation.”
Dr. Cox said while critics accuse millennials of being selfish, both Boyle and Goodall have proven the opposite, altruistically giving of themselves to help others.
“I can’t even give a better definition of what a friend is – they’ve show it,” he said. “And it’s not always the words that someone says, it’s the actions, particularly young people – they’re used to saying things and not following through, but these young men have followed through. They’re great young men.”