Christmas came a little early for Joe and Susan Cunningham. On Dec. 1, the couple and their six children received a Wal-Mart gift card for more than $750 from their “angels” at The University of Mississippi.
Students and faculty in the UM chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association held a fall fund-raiser to collect money for the family, whose Pascagoula home was slammed by the 25-foot storm surge caused by Hurricane Katrina in August.
“Laura and Shellie and their band of angels came through again for Christmas,” said Susan Cunningham. “I didn’t think they could do more, but they helped us give our kids a wonderful Christmas at the end of a very difficult year.”
Cunningham was referring to Laura Biddy of Grenada and Shellie Ferguson of Tylertown, students in the Department of Communicative Disorders who began helping the family soon after the disaster. Biddy and Ferguson had met the family through the Cunningham’s son, Ron, last summer at Camp Jabber Jaw in Starkville.
“I was Ron’s counselor at camp,” said Biddy, a graduate student. “He was great, and I enjoyed getting to know him and his family. When the storm hit, we knew we had to do something.”
Soon after the storm, Biddy and Ferguson sent an e-mail inquiring about the family they’d grown to know and love.
“Ron is wheelchair-bound, the phone system was down, and I was worried sick,” said Biddy. “I was worried that the family was not be able to evacuate and praying that everything was OK.”
Susan Cunningham said it took a couple of days to respond to Biddy’s e-mail because the surge had devastated their city beyond anyone’s expectations.
“We lost most everything at home, but I was able to e-mail Laura to let her know that the children and I evacuated to Pensacola, Fla., and that we were fine,” she said. Her husband, a Pascagoula police officer, could not leave with his family because of his job.
The Cunningham’s five-bedroom home and the family’s second vehicle, a van, were flooded by the storm, but the greatest loss was Ron’s and Jonah’s medical equipment.
“It looked like a bomb exploded at our house,” said the stay-at-home mother. “Most of the boys’ equipment was too large for me to take. Ron had just gone to Camp Jabber Jaw to learn how to use his augmentative communication device. It was all ruined.”
Ron, 6, like all the Cunningham children, is adopted. He has quadraparetic cerebral palsy, and, after extensive augmentative communication evaluations, he received a computer with which to communicate.
“He requires tube feeding and nebulizer treatments each day,” Susan Cunningham said. “Ron’s needs are extensive, but he is a great joy to our family. His first sentence on his device was, ‘Do you want to hear a joke?’ Ron is completely nonverbal and was devastated over the loss of his device.”
Five-year-old Jonah lost most of his medical equipment as well. He has Down syndrome, congenital heart and chronic spasmodic airway disease, and specific antibody immunodeficiency. He requires a special medical crib, tube feeding and daily nebulizer treatments.
The Cunningham’s other children are 16-year-old Hannah, 12-year-olds Holley and Jack, and 8-year-old Sarah Katherine. The storm destroyed all of their school supplies, clothes and personal items.
Susan Cunningham said she was completely overwhelmed during the first few days after the disaster and was relieved when the UM group stepped in to help.
“We were not in the flood zone; I never dreamed we would get so much water,” she said. “Laura took the bull by the horns and handled everything. She rallied people to help raise money to help get Ron’s device up and running immediately, and Shellie arranged for clothes for the entire family. They’ve been a godsend.”
Joe Cunningham agreed, saying, “The outpouring of support has been great. The Ole Miss students helped get replacement parts for Ron’s equipment, and clothes, shoes and medical supplies for the other kids. We would not have been able to make it without people like Laura and Shellie.”
The family lost other items, including most of their beds and all of their linens and towels, as well as their cherished family photographs.
“As we sorted through our home, there was very, very little that could be salvaged,” said the mother. “Food became an issue once we were a little more settled. We had to start from scratch.”
She said the long-term effects are beginning to sink in. “But when we get down, we hear from our Ole Miss friends and it makes all the difference in the world,” she added.
The Cunninghams said they want to “thank Laura and Shellie for being good Christian sisters.”
“God bless them. I just want them and their friends to know how much their help means to us,” Susan Cunningham said. “Little by little, we’ve been blessed repeatedly. We’ve had so many people reach out to help—Laura and Shellie, the National Foster Parents Association and the Central Mississippi Down Syndrome Society. We just want to say thank you.”
Ferguson said they were able to collect many items for the family through the NSSLHA chapter. In fact, the fund-raiser was held during the Fall Institute, co-sponsored by the chapter and UM’s communicative disorders department. Speech-language pathologists from across the state who attended the September event purchased clipboards and flowers to help purchase the gift card.
Like many other coast families, the Cunninghams have not been able to move back into their flooded home. Besides extensive water and wind damage, mold is quickly overtaking the building’s lower level. However, Susan Cunningham said she is excited to be living in Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile homes on their property.
“It’s about normalcy for the children,” said Joe Cunningham, a 20-year law-enforcement veteran. “It’s been hectic since the storm. All of the specialty care for our younger boys was done in New Orleans—so much has changed for them.”
The children were able to return to school in late October. They weren’t thrilled, said their mother, but “they are glad to be back to something normal.”
“After months of moving around every few days, first living in Florida with a military family and later moving in with my brother, we’re just happy to be home,” she said. “We pray to be back in our [repaired] home by March or April of next year; the children would like that, and I would like that, too.”
The Cunningham children are all smiles as they sit on the steps of a friend’s house. Hurricane Katrina flooded the house, which dates back to the 1800s.