Noel and Tammy Cunningham have been helping out the less fortunate in Ethiopia for nine years, ever since they launched The Cunningham Foundation in 2003.
Since then the couple, whose restaurants include Strings in Denver, Colorado, and Union 24 in Lakewood, Colorado, have raised almost $750,000 for impoverished Ethiopians.
Sadly, Noel Cunningham died last December, but Tammy continues his work.
In February the couple was awarded the Restaurant Neighbor Humanitarian Award from the National Restaurant Association (NRA).
Tammy Cunningham talks with Restaurant Management:
What led you to launch The Cunningham Foundation?
Noel was on the board of Share Our Strength and had traveled to various places. In 1998 I was approached by Project Cure, which gathers hospital equipment to take it to developing countries. They asked me to go on a women’s trip and visit four towns in Ethiopia. I fell in love the second day. You see children who are not just hungry, but you see children die. In 2001 I went back and by 2003 we were ready to start our own foundation.
How did you get it off the ground?
We took 24 people with us in our first delegation in 2003 and it ended up being one of the worst famines since 1984. We saw nine feeding tents and that’s when we saw a child dying in front of our eyes of starvation. We heard the cries of children all the time and we had to find the children who would have a chance of living. Women were knocking on the window of the bus saying ‘Take my child.’
We came back more hungry than ever to make a difference. We were there for two weeks. We decided we’d go every year and take money back and that way we’d get to check up on them and make sure they were using the money correctly.
How do you raise funds to give to Ethiopia?
The Ethiopian kids make scarves and we bring them back and sell them locally through the restaurant. All the money from these go to secondary education in Africa.
With Project Mercy we take the Ethiopian children beads—and they now make their own—and they make bracelets and then we bring them back to sell them in the U.S.
We have also had a couple of Hope Balls. And after I lost Noel, the community came together in my numbness and shock and they ran a tribute dinner in February and all that money went to Ethiopia.
What is the money you raise used for?
The amount we raise generally increases year over year. In the first year (2003) we raised $50,000 for 500 bracelets that we sold here in America for $100 each.
We have funded Ethiopia Reads opening two libraries, and funding education/books. We fund Project Mercy, giving money for education, food, and creating opportunities for learning bead making and bracelet making. We fund The Mother of Teresa Aids Orphanage for children, and help sell their scarves to help them with their education.
What have been your goals?
Our goal was bridging the gap between the developing world and the developed world.
It’s changed a little over time—my focus was empowering students and Noel’s was all about giving. He didn’t know how to receive. He liked being able to know that your dollar made such a difference in Ethiopia. I’m a giver but I’m also a life coach so it’s all about empowerment.
What do you like most about your fundraising?
Ethiopia turns us on because these people have so little yet they smile from their hearts. In America we have so much and don’t know how to smile. In America we have so much to pull us away from our heart and in Ethiopia I think they focus on what they do have, not what they don’t have and they’re pretty happy with what they have.
What have been your biggest challenges?
[Dealing with Africa] that has been a blessing because that dollar stretches so far but it’s been a curse because there’s some judgment about not keeping money in America.
What have you learned through this experience?
If I look at the core of what I’ve learned, everyone wants to be a part of a solution and everyone wants to be empowered; they all want to give. They give us things when we go to Ethiopia. People seek me out and give me money. We don’t do a lot of fundraising but when people do find out they give us money and it’s pretty amazing at times.
People are inherently giving when they can see beyond a world so rich, and we believe we are a conduit for connecting the developing world and the developed worlds.