DeMontrell Cunningham, plays with his son, Malik, Saturday afternoon at Townsend Community Center. Cunningham established Kids’ Day in the Park in 2008 as a way to give back to the community and encourage children to stay away from drugs. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
May 12, 2014 9:17:29 AM
DeMontrell Cunningham has a simple mission: Give local kids one day a year to cut loose and have fun. Yet Cunningham's motives run deeper.
Cunningham established Kids' Day in the Park in 2008. Shortly before the event took place Saturday, the 45-year-old father of seven sat down to explain why he hosts the event each year.
"I want to see them having a good time," Cunningham said. "Once it gets started, you can sit back and smile at the kids as they run around and have fun, eat their little hot dogs and hamburgers and drink their little juices. It's just a fun sight to see. As long as they're having a good time, it makes me smile."
Cunningham said the idea of the Kids' Day first came to him when he came home from prison and saw neighborhood children with nothing to do. Before he went to prison on drug charges, Cunningham coached little league baseball and soccer. When he returned home after eight-and-a-half years in prison, he decided to make sure the children in his neighborhood didn't grow up and follow the same path that he did.
"They say (kids) are our future, so we've got to show them they're our future," he said. "That's my main thing; to show them that somebody does care. In their little minds they can think, 'Ain't nobody doing nothing for us.' So that's why I came up with the Kids' Day -- to show them that somebody does care."
Cunningham said he talks to kids and encourages them to go to school and stay away from the lifestyle that drug use creates.
"I try to inspire them," he said. "I tell them, "All the fancy cars and all the money -- it might look good, but it ain't good so get out and get you a job, Set you a career, go to school, go to college. Be a lawyer, be a doctor. There's more than one way to get it besides out there selling drugs because at the end of the day, it's going to end you in a place you don't want to be.'
"I tell them, 'You can take it from experience because I done been there. All the glory I had with it, at the end of the day, it took me away from my family and that's a place I don't want y'all to go to. Overlook the fancy cars and all that because you can get it , but get it in the right way.'"
Cunningham's oldest daughter is on her way to medical school. His oldest son served in the Navy and another daughter is in college.
Even when Cunningham was involved in drug activity, he encouraged his own children to go to college. When he was released from prison, he made sure he told other young children the same thing.
"I try to steer into their minds to go to college, to get an education," he said. "Their daddy was in that limelight but I try to keep them away from it. And any other child I'll try to keep from it because everything that looks good ain't good."
Cunningham says he feels like it is the responsibility of the entire community to make sure children don't get caught up in the cycle of drugs and violence.
"They can look at that child and don't say nothing. You can see them going up that road but you don't stop them. You can stop them and say, 'Hold up,' even though that ain't your child. You can say, 'Hold up, that ain't the way of doing things.' I try to inspire a lot of kids to go about doing it the right way."
Saturday, as dozens of neighborhood children filled into the area of Townsend Community Center to enjoy a day of fun, Cunningham couldn't stop smiling.
"I get excited when this time of the year comes around. I love it."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.
1. Two local nonprofits get Dutch Oil grants COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
2. Industrial park legal challenge will delay project STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY