Noel Cunningham passed away on December 1, 2011 at the age of 62. We would like to honor this remarkable man by re-posting this interview.
After spending some time talking with Noel Cunningham, there’s a good chance you’re life is going to change for the better. If you are tired or feeling run down, get ready to be recharged by Noel’s enthusiasm and sense of purpose to helping our world become a better place for all. How can you say, “I'm not getting involved,” to a person who is consumed with doing so much good? People usually can’t.
When I first pulled up at Strings Restaurant for our meeting, there was a bus full of children going inside. Turns out these children, who are each dealing with their own cancer battle, were being treated to lunch by Noel. Treating someone less fortunate to a meal is an everyday occurrence at Strings. Noel says “I’m so blessed, - we are so blessed in this country – What worries do we have when we see these children fighting for their lives?”
Noel Cunningham, and the love of his life, his wife Tammy, have committed themselves to being part of a never-ending battle to end hunger, poverty and disease – especially in countries like Africa and other third world countries.
A big part of Noel’s day is spent devoting himself to talking with anyone and everyone about how their contributions of even quarters could make a difference. Whether it’s through his commitment to organizations such as Share our Strength, Project Mercy in Ethiopia, Quarters for Kids (an idea spurred by Noel’s dream of children in this country wanting to get involved in hunger relief), Volunteers of America, Meals on Wheels, the Secret Chef’s Dinner for Project Pave - or taking several personal trips a year to countries like Africa to “hands-on” do whatever can be done.
It’s easy to see why Noel is the hero of many. What a true humanitarian he is, who asks for little in return, except that all of us, in any way we can, “Pay it (Back) and Forward” to help those in such need have a chance at a brighter future.
How do you always stay so up, motivated, and enthusiastic? With the help of Tammy, my wife, of 17 years.
Tell us about your passion for your charitable work in Africa? When I am standing in front of a child in Ethiopia who is one-year-old and only weighs 6 lbs., how can I not want to be involved? When a young man has only one pair of shoes (that we gave him) and comes to school barefoot because he doesn’t want to wear out his shoes - and doesn’t know when he will get another pair, how can I not be passionate about doing something?
What problems do I have; I am the fortunate one. You suddenly feel like whatever petty thing you are concerning yourself with at the moment is small compared to what’s happening in other parts of the world like Africa today; Hunger, no clean water, people dying of primitive illnesses. It’s not right; there’s no need for this to happen. We can change this and it’s unthinkable not to try.
Why do you think things are so out of balance and so many people are suffering in a world that has made so many technological advancements? That part I don’t understand. The kids in Ethiopia were so sick when we visited their country; there is no need for it. It can all be prevented.
The Nile River flows through Ethiopia; it is controlled by Egypt though. Egypt will regard it as an “Act of War” if Ethiopia taps into the river. How can the U.N. stand by and let stuff like this happen? The U.S. gives Egypt $22 billion a year. How can the U.N. - or the United States stand by and see Zimbabwe, who used to be the “bread basket of Africa,” now be turned into a country that is food dependent. This is why Tammy and I are fighting so hard for global change and involvement.
What else can we do about this? We need stronger leadership. We need our kids - and teachers to educate the kids about the need to have a global component. We don’t have much of a global perspective; although there are teens doing incredible things, but the media doesn’t cover it.
We should always be supportive of the positive things they do. Society is looking for young leadership; there should be “xyz” number of positive stories every day. After hearing all the sensational stories, I say that the good stories have an equal response in your psyche, you want to hear that some good efforts are working.
What do you consider your proudest accomplishment? I’m the most proud of people. I do believe most people do have a heart and a soul.
Let me give you some examples; there is a wonderful woman from Children’s Hospital, April Cole, who gave up seven weeks of her time and expertise to come to Ethiopia with us - paid her own way. The value of her work was around $20,000. She worked her tail off to get the equipment working which saved a ton of money instead, of flying an engineer in from Germany to do it.
A young girl named Basa taught school in Ethiopia, her connection with the kids was priceless; the kids loved her, tried to do better and didn’t want to miss a single day of school.
American bead artists donated their beads, and over $100,000 was raised. A lady named, Betsy Wiersma, here in Denver came up with this idea. We call her “the Mother of Hope.” She started the Hope Bracelet Project for Project Mercy. She and my wife, Tammy, went to all the bead conventions and asked people to donate their beads for the Bracelet Project. Teaching the women and kids in Ethiopia to turn the beads into beautiful bracelets has been a blessing. Bracelets are sold in the U.S. with 100 percent of the funds going back to Ethiopia.
You refer a lot to your spirituality, do you want to talk about that? We should definitely respect our own individual religions and others but religion isn’t worthwhile to me without spirituality. Being in tune with your religion, and with your spirituality, I believe, makes you much more accepting. Anyone who is intolerant of another person’s point of view - and says they are religious, what is it really worth. Being human is being in touch with your spirituality and with God.
What do you love most about living in Denver? I have twin girls and when they were 5-years-old, we took them to Disneyland in California. I always said we had two kids, $200 bucks and two suitcases when we made that trip. We never left the United States. I had a dream that both my girls would go to UCLA - they both did and graduated. They worked hard to accomplish this. I worked in a fancy club in L.A. and I wanted to do a charitable event for the famine in Ethiopia at the club, but the owners didn’t want to. The club was sold and then I heard from a friend that the Strings location here in Denver was available; this was 19 years ago, and I was looking for a business opportunity – and a place to do charitable events.
Here’s what I have to say about Denver: Tammy and I couldn’t do any of this without the support of the Denver community. We are just the conduit. Denver has been very good to us. If people didn’t support our restaurant, we couldn’t accomplish anything, if people didn’t support our ideas, we know we couldn’t do this ourselves. In 1986, this town was suffering from a bad economy. From ‘86-’90, Denver supported the “Meals on Wheels” program; they supported the Brandon Shelter, and many others. Now it’s not as big a deal as then, because the economy has been good, and the money is here. The true character of this town was when we didn’t have a lot of money in the late 80’s, and we were really in trouble. All the charities were still being supported in the best way people could at that time - when they really didn’t have the money. I love living here, I’m so glad I came here. I grew up in Dublin, and Tammy grew up in Pueblo. It’s amazing that we got together, and ended up being so happy. We care so much about each other and love being in Denver.
Is there another city/state/country that is special to you? Of course, Africa. If I were independently wealthy, I’d like to spend my time in Africa, reaching out, building schools, and opening hospitals, now that would make me really happy!
Tell us what your thoughts are today about your hometown Dublin, Ireland? Ireland is a tremendous inspiration for the world. Many left Ireland early on because of the lack of opportunities there. Then Ireland made a commitment to education and they used some smarts by investing in their infrastructures. They went from being a developing country in Europe to one of the strongest economies in Europe.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Much of the world’s suffering. Also, being miserable would be going to a job you hate. I feel so fortunate that I am doing something I love. It’s a tough business, but I’m happy to go to work everyday. Another “lowest dept of misery” would be not to have true friends. To live an existence that one is so caught up in what will be your next materialistic accomplishment that you don’t have time to truly enjoy what you have, and the people around you, is sad.
If you could go back in time and do something differently, what would it be? You know what, I really wouldn’t, because we think we control our lives, we actually don’t. The most important thing for us to do is to be as good as we possibly can in our hearts everyday. When certain things happen, you deal with them the best you can. Look at the kids in here today dealing with cancer, what problems do we have compared to that?
What would you do if you were King of the World? I’d like to have Bill Gates’ money so I could spend it faster and wiser to fight hunger, poverty, and disease.
What is your favorite quote? “The enemy of excellent is good.”
What is the best advice your Mom or Dad ever gave you? My Mom always said: “If you are going to do something, do it well, or not at all.”
Who is the greatest love of your life? Tammy is the greatest love of my life.
What would you most like to pass on to the next generation? Be part of the global society. I can’t stress that enough. Take the barriers away from just being in the United States and participate in the global society. We are so fortunate; we have so much, so much access to everything, I’m not advocating that we should live in poverty, all I am advocating is that we open our eyes around us.
There was this kid from Littleton High School that wrote me a wonderful letter after she became involved in the “Quarters for Kids” program; it brought tears to my eyes. She was somewhat lost, but had so much goodness in her, up to this point it hadn’t been challenged. Working on the program uplifted her and it made her a better person.
We must encourage our teenagers to become better members of the global community. Parents should let their kids know how lucky they are to have been born on this side of the world. We all could have been born somewhere else; we are so blessed with opportunities that many others in the world don’t have.
Is there something that you would still like to do? I really have done everything I’ve wanted to do. My plate is full; I could die a happy man, but I prefer not to just yet.
What might your epitaph read or what would you most like to be remembered for? I tried to live life to the fullest - to participate in life. Not just to have been a taker, I left something behind. I hope I put back a little more than I took.