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Cunningham’s life of service honored

January 25, 2008

Cunningham’s life of service honored

For Melannie Cunningham, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has always been special.“Martin Luther King Jr. Day is really the only day that America has where we focus on unity,” she explained. “That’s why it’s important to me.”

Cunningham, associate director of admission, was the architect behind Tacoma’s first Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in 1989. That first modest event, held in the City Council Chambers, attracted a standing-room only crowd. Ever since, the Tacoma Dome has hosted the celebration, which now attracts as many as 4,000 people.

At the event’s 20th anniversary last Monday, Cunningham and Bernice Griffin received community service awards from the city’s Human Rights and Human Services Department.

“I didn’t understand the magnitude of what it (the award) was until I was there,” Cunningham said.

Tears sprung to Cunningham’s eyes as she recalled what if felt like to stand on that stage and look out at the audience, all of them clapping for her. While it’s easy for Cunningham to give praise to others, she said she’s always found it hard to receive praise.

More importantly though, the award confirmed how valuable the event is to the people of Tacoma. It’s a day where people of all races are encouraged to find the common ground and look past their differences, Cunningham said.

“It’s a day that says it’s OK to make new friends,” she said. “It’s unity in its purest sense.”

Cunningham said the program has always been focused on the children. When she received her award last week, several of the children who attended the first celebrations –now in their late 20s – spoke about their memories of Cunningham and the event.

“They still remembered,” Cunningham said. “That makes me feel like we did it.”

Cunningham lives her life with purpose, and she always knew she wanted to serve others. She’s currently working towards her master’s of business administration and the next chapter in her life: helping people understand that Africa matters.

“There are lots of opportunities for us to partner with the people of Africa, with businesses in Africa,” she said.

She entered the MBA program purposefully, so she could learn the link between entrepreneurship and social responsibility. She’s interested in exploring business opportunities for trade and investment in Africa and finding actual projects to distribute in America.

Cunningham’s personal mission statement, “to acquire massive financial wealth so I can spend the rest of my life giving it away,” fits well with her new dream. She’s currently working on distribution deals for African hot sauce and wine. Eventually, she plans to import the African products to America, sell them as gourmet and reinvest the majority of the profits into different areas of Africa, such as education.

“I’ve learned the concept of enough,” she said. “You take what you need and with the rest of it, you bless others.”

Cunningham is hosting “Why Africa Matters” on Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Rialto Theater in Tacoma. The event will highlight the need for collaboration between Africa and America, and it will help raise funds for 12 orphans living in Nairobi, Kenya, who lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.

It features entertainment by Saul Williams, poet, actor, author and humanitarian; 2021, a positive hip-hop crew; Reality Check, a dance troupe and youth outreach organization; Peacetime Armory, specializing in music and poetry; Naomi Kimani, Kenya’s 2007 Best New Teen Talent; and work by students at the Tacoma School of the Arts.

For more information about the event, contact Cunningham at

University Communications staff writer Megan Haley compiled this report. Comments, questions, ideas? Please contact her at ext. 8691 or at Photo by University Photographer Jordan Hartman.