MARYLAND (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Cavanaugh Bell stood just slightly taller than the tyres on the 53-foot semitrailer he and his mother filled with thousands of pounds of supplies.
Although Cavanaugh, seven, appeared tiny next to the towering truck, it was his big idea to load it with essentials for people in need – more than 1,500 miles away from his Maryland home in the United States (US).
It has been his mission since the pandemic started, and he said it is in response to some ruthless bullying he had experienced.
“After I was bullied and I felt a darkness inside of me, I knew I didn’t want other kids to feel the same way I felt,” he wrote on his GoFundMe page. “So, I asked my mom if she could help me spread love and positivity. And, the more I gave back to my community, the more I wanted to keep doing it.”
At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in March, Cavanaugh – who lives in Gaithersburg with his mother, aunt and cousins – was focussed on helping the local community in the Maryland suburb. He created care packages with toiletries and groceries for elderly people using his own savings of birthday and holiday money. Eventually, fuelled by donations, he and his mother opened a food pantry at a nearby warehouse that a logistics company offered to let them use.
After Cavanaugh was the focus of some stories in the news media, he got praise from people in high places, including Senator Kamala Harris of California, now US Vice President-elect.
She also featured him on her YouTube show “Kids with Kamala” in May, where he asked her questions, including what she wants to do when the pandemic is over. (Her answer: hug her little nieces.)
With the success of the food pantry, Cavanaugh, who is in second grade, decided over the summer to extend his reach beyond Gaithersburg, shifting his efforts to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota – home to some of the poorest communities in the US.
According to the Census Bureau; half the population lives below the federal poverty line, some assessments placing the reservation’s poverty rate in excess of 90 per cent.
He settled on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation when he thought back to the road trip he and his mother took two years ago to Mount Rushmore in Pennington County, South Dakota.
As they drove through the reservation, Cavanaugh’s mother, Llacey Simmons, said her son’s eyes were glued to the window the whole drive.
“My mom explained to me that people live on the reservation, and some didn’t have what they needed to survive,” said Cavanaugh. “Some of the houses didn’t have electricity or running water.”
Since Cavanaugh’s food pantry was thriving and donations were pouring in through GoFundMe and Amazon Wish List pages, he decided to reach out to the community once more asking for essential supplies for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Donations flooded in, and Cavanaugh and his mother managed to fill an entire semi-truck with canned and non-perishable foods, hygiene products, cleaning supplies and other critical items worth about USD20,000 in total.
Using donations from Cavanaugh’s GoFundMe, Simmons arranged for a driver to transport the goods, which cost USD3,500.
Simmons reached out to the director of a non-profit organisation on the reservation to let them know of their plan to send a load of supplies. Director of First Families Now, Alice Phelps, was thrilled.
“I grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and I’ve seen firsthand the need and struggle,” said Phelps, who was a teacher for several years and then a school principal on the reservation.
“There is probably an average of three families living in one two-bedroom home,” she said, adding that jobs and economic development are scarce.
Cavanaugh sent the first delivery on July 10. The reservation was so grateful, he said, that he decided to do it again.
“I wanted to do more stuff for them to make them happy,” said Cavanaugh. “Since winter is coming, I knew they didn’t have what they needed to stay warm, so I asked people to donate blankets, jackets and winter supplies.”
They generously responded.
Cavanaugh and his mother loaded up another semitrailer on September 22, packing it to the brim with much-needed items, worth about USD25,000.
Thanks to Cavanaugh’s efforts, “our families are going to be alright for a little while”, said Phelps.
She said the reservation has declared a state of emergency based on the rising number of suicide attempts. From January to August, there were about 168 suicide attempts and five completions, she said.
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has a population of close to 20,000 people. The average life expectancy is the lowest in the US, and the teen suicide rate on the reservation is estimated to be 150 per cent higher than the national average.
The mounting suicide rate especially struck a chord with Cavanaugh because of his own experience with bullying.
“Other kids started calling me weird,” explained Cavanaugh, as the bullying began two years ago.
“When Cavanaugh was in preschool, he abruptly stopped eating,” explained his mother, who works as a marketing copywriter. “He finally confided in me and said that kids were making fun of him in school.”
Cavanaugh attended a Gaithersburg City Council meeting when he was six and asked officials to designate February 21 as Anti-Bullying Awareness Day in honour of Gabriel Taye – an eight-year-old Cincinnati boy who took his own life after being bullied. Cavanaugh was able to travel to Ohio to personally present the proclamation confirming the Anti-Bullying Awareness Day to Gabriel’s mother.
Cavanaugh’s success with the city council drove him to start his own nonprofit organisation he named Cool and Dope – an acronym for “considering others’ obstacles in life and dish out positive energy”. He said his central mission is to combat bullying and spread positivity.
“He wanted to show other kids that they can be powerful, even if people say they’re not,” said his mother. She added that his outreach started as a platform for Cavanaugh to speak out against bullying, but extended to the community pantry.
“My goal was to help 1,000 people,” Cavanaugh said. “But so far, I’ve helped more than 8,000.”
Throughout the spring and summer, Cavanaugh, his mother and local volunteers, organised a pantry in the Shady Grove area, where they offered food and supplies for people in need on weekends, but they recently shifted to contactless deliveries to people’s homes.
On a recent weekend, Cavanaugh and his mother dropped off 53 care packages that included bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, canned goods and hygiene products to Churchill Senior Living in Germantown, where they’ve been making regular deliveries since March. It started after one resident read about the pantry in the local news and reached out.
“Cavanaugh just blew my mind. The way he speaks from his soul and his heart,” said Kathleen Blair, 70, a resident at Churchill. “He is a hero, a born leader, extraordinary, passionate and compassionate.”
To thank Cavanaugh for his regular food and supply deliveries, residents at the senior living facility banded together to gather blankets, boots and other essentials for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Blair said that after she explained to her neighbours how high the suicide rate is on the Pine Ridge reservation, “all of a sudden people started knocking on my door with things to pack up and give”.
For Cavanaugh and his mother, their efforts have come a full circle.
“A lot of families we helped in the beginning have actually come back and volunteered, and consistently brought us donations every week,” said Simmons. “The cycle continues of us blessing people, and they come back and bless us 10-fold.”
Phelps estimates Cavanaugh’s deliveries have helped more than 1,000 families on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“He’s only seven years old. I’m excited to follow him and see what other amazing things he’s going to do,” she said. “It’s hopeful, during a time when there’s so much uncertainty, to think of what our future is going to look like with people like him.”
When Cavanaugh grows up, he said, “I want to be someone that makes laws for the state, and maybe be on the Supreme Court.”
“I want people to know that they can do anything – it doesn’t matter if you are eight or 87, you can make change,” said Cavanaugh. “You just need to believe it.”