Cathy Cunningham: Community Advocate

Cathy Cunningham: Community Advocate

As a community development advocate, Cathy Cunningham believes in the power of education — cultural, political and economic — to change lives and communities. She believes young people and adults, who understand the importance of helping to create an improved quality of life for all, can positively affect the direction of a community’s future.

Cunningham is originally from Dunsmuir, a town in northern California. Her father was in the military and her parents eventually retired to Heber Springs. After marrying Ernest Cunningham in 1978 and moving to Helena, she felt fortunate to share in the lives of his two sons and the couple’s now five grandchildren.

Cunningham soon became a champion of historic preservation and led an effort to restore several historic structures in Helena. One of these projects was the restoration of the 1905 Short House, still in operation as the Edwardian Inn Bed & Breakfast.

“After moving to Helena, I saw there are so many beautiful homes and businesses,” Cunningham said. “I noticed a beautiful, big old Victorian house that was falling apart. I conned several friends into a partnership to save the old, dilapidated house and we turned it into the Edwardian Inn Bed & Breakfast.”

Cunningham has been dedicated to the improvement of her adopted hometown through tourism and economic development. She was appointed by Gov. Frank White to the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (Arkansas Economic Development Commission). She served as Chairman of the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council and as a founding board member of the Arkansas Main Street Program. She was the first woman asked to serve on the board of Arkansas Power & Light (Entergy Arkansas), and has served many years on the Board of First National Bank of Phillips County (Southern Bancorp, Central).

Cunningham and her husband were instrumental in the decision of KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program, to open a school in Helena. A national network of public charter schools dedicated to preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life, KIPP opened in 2002 with three classes of fifth-grade students and now serves over 1500 students in Helena-West Helena, Blytheville and Forrest City. Cunningham serves on the Board of KIPP Delta where, as chairman of the Development Committee, she led a campaign to raise several million dollars to support KIPP Delta Public Schools.

“Ernest and I were contacted by the Department of Education, who were interested in building a KIPP school in the Delta,” Cunningham said. “We were asked to set up a community meeting and we were able to convince them to come to Helena.”

Cunningham said KIPP has become her biggest passion project. She was able to blend her love for historic preservation and education to the underserved into one, as the KIPP school was set up in a historic building in Helena.

Cunningham’s moxie is driven by her love of the community and its rich heritage.

“The most rewarding thing about the projects I’ve been involved with is seeing the positive impact on the community,” Cunningham said. “We have a very poor community here, but I’ve learned that you can make a difference over time. It’s also rewarding to see the KIPP students graduate from college. Ten students are coming back to teach at KIPP school and it’s great to see them giving back to their community.”

Cunningham and her husband have made a tremendous impact on Arkansas tourism and have worked to put Helena on the tourist map. One of the couple’s most visible and more recognized achievements is their involvement in and coordination of the Civil War Helena initiative.

As a Community Development Consultant with Southern Bancorp Community Partners, and as chair of the Helena Advertising & Promotion Commission, Cunningham led the development and implementation of the Civil War Helena project and many tourism-related improvements in the community. The plan identified 25 sites throughout Helena that provided an opportunity for interpretation and exhibits. The community is currently in the process of developing all 25 sites, with 40 interpretive panels already in place throughout the downtown area at locations that include Fort Curtis, a ¾ scale replica of the Civil War-era Union earthworks fort. These sites tell the stories of life under Union occupation, thousands of freed slaves and the formation of African-American Union regiments in addition to continuing to tell about the Battle of Helena and the area’s Confederate generals.

The Cunninghams have also put Helena on the national heritage tourism map. An article in The Helena World, explained how the Delta Cultural Center conducted a study of a national landmark in Corinth, Miss., only to find that Civil War Helena was ahead of the nationally known Civil War battle site. A statement by Mark Christ, Community Outreach Director of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, said, “The impact that Ernest and Cathy Cunningham have had on heritage tourism in Helena is impossible to calculate, particularly regarding the city’s remarkable Civil War history. Where 10 years ago there were scattered exhibits and earthworks known only to a few, there is now what I consider the best and most diverse interpretation of the era anywhere in the United States.”

Christ said, “None of this would have been possible without the vision and drive of the Cunninghams, and all of Arkansas owes them a vote of thanks.”

When Cunningham isn’t volunteering her time at her various organizations she can be found traveling with her husband, entertaining, gardening and spending time with her stepsons and grandchildren.

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