Written by Edward Thomas Photography by Rob Kaufman
Leon “L.J.” Bush Jr., executive director of “The COIN Project: Changing Our Image Now,” has never lacked motivation.
It was instilled by his parents, Leon and Laura Bush of Bluffton, and today in his early 50s he embraces a deep sense of respectful appreciation for the sacrifices and resilience of his family’s Lowcountry lineage, traceable nearly 300 years when his forefathers worked the fields of plantations on Spring Island and Bluffton.
Early in his youth, Bush displayed his gift of athletic prowess. By high school he had grown to a strapping 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame, with quick feet that helped him earn all-state honors in football (defensive end) and baseball (catcher). His efforts earned him a combined-sport athletic scholarship to Norfolk State University in Virginia.
However, what he remembers most about that period of his life is how his parents instilled three key principles in him and his three sisters: “Love God. Respect your family name. Pursue a life of purpose to succeed personally while helping others along the way.”
Upon finishing college Bush had several opportunities to move forward with his life elsewhere — perhaps to a larger city with greater opportunities. But a yearning for the distinctive Lowcountry life, and a hidden desire to be engaged in ways that would benefit his community, led him back to Beaufort County.
Bush was soon immersed as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Hilton Head High School. He also took a job with Hilton Head Public Service District, where he was the youngest of a large group of workers.
“I learned a lot from the older guys at the public service district,” says Bush. “They took me under their wing and showed me the ropes. That experience taught me how important mentoring could be.”
Pete Nardi, now general manager of Hilton Head Public Service District, says: “L.J. turned into a great community ambassador for us because of his stature in the community with young people. A lot of young men started their careers here because of L.J.”
Bush’s mentoring passion took a major step forward when he was inspired to become a Certified Life Coach in conjunction with the renowned International Coaching Science Research Foundation.
“It was a great experience. It helped me be a more active listener and how to help the young people clarify their goals,” he said.
Together with his mother, Bush came up with the name “Changing Our Image Now” (COIN) for his new enterprise.
Four years later, Bush struck up a friendship with entrepreneur Billy Watterson, who expressed admiration for the mentoring initiatives COIN had underway and an offer to provide financial support. In particular, he was interested in the potential COIN offered to combat poverty in the Lowcountry by enabling young people to establish viable careers in the local workforce.
A key aspect of today’s COIN program is exposing youth from 14 to 20 years old to career opportunities that they may otherwise never have known about.
“Our ultimate goal is to broaden horizons for these young people, and equip them with essential life skills to achieve their personal goals,” says Bush. “Often teens these days have very limited ideas about what they want to do in life. So, one of the first things I ask them is, ‘Do you want to be successful?’ When they say yes, I tell them: ‘OK, I can work with you on that.’ ”
With 25 participants now, and more than 70 over past three years, COIN has established relationships with local fire departments, local utility companies, Hilton Head Hospital and Disney Corporation, among other local businesses. It has also helped create internship diversity programs with national companies like Proctor & Gamble.
James Pinckney Jr. is currently doing a second summer internship with Proctor & Gamble.
Another important aspect of the program is a collaboration between COIN and the Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation. Bush has facilitated meetings between BCEDC and some of its high-profile participants like Lockheed Martin Space and L3 Harris/Kigre, which produces solid-state laser components on Hilton Head. Charlie Stone, a senior project manager with BCEDC, points out that COIN “has not only opened the eyes of these young men but has also helped them realize new potential career opportunities.”
Bush also insists that his teenagers participate in volunteer community events, and by doing so learn about giving back and experiencing firsthand how they can contribute to the betterment of their surroundings.
“We make it fun for them. We started, a drumline and now it gets invited to perform at community events,” says Bush.
Said Hilton Head Town Council member Alex Brown: “The COIN program is already making a significant impact with these young people in our community. It’s broadening their horizons and instilling a new sense of purpose for them.”
More information about the organization can be found online at changingourimagenow.org.