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Cunningham Family Uses Tragedy to Help Others

Dennis and Margot Cunningham awarded the Julie Cunningham scholarship to Nikki Callen in 2013.

By David Schriemer, MD

“A parent’s worst nightmare” occurred November 14, 1987 for Dennis and Margot Cunningham. Their oldest daughter Julie, a 1987 Vicksburg High School graduate and Western Michigan University freshman, was murdered while out for a run on campus.

It was random, horrific, and incomprehensible. But through the tragedy, the Cunninghams have gone on to help others with a scholarship program and volunteering to help others through their tragedies.

“You get past it, not over it.,” Dennis and Margot say. But, at the time, they were overwhelmed and in “such a fog” that the details of the days after the murder were a blur.

“We can’t say enough about how good the community of Vicksburg has been to us. The schools, churches, everyone,” they say. The funeral, held in the Vicksburg High School gymnasium, was packed.

Kindnesses of friends and acquaintances are not forgotten. Daily visits from good friends and random visits from acquaintances helped.

“A woman knocked on my door. She was a mother of one of the kids on my daughter’s team. She said ‘I just have to give you a hug.’ So she did and then she left. It was so uplifting,” Margot says.

Adds Dennis, “Grief is grief. That’s the important thing: survival.”

“Everyone deals with it differently,” says Margot. ”You can’t tell someone they should feel this way or do this thing. Grief is exhausting mentally and physically.” But, the kindnesses of the community kept them going.

Friends of their 16-year-old daughter, Carrie, and friends of Julie’s crowded into the house and were a great source of consolation and joy. The teenagers weren’t so guarded as the adults, and freely shared stories and memories.

“I’ll always remember…” became a favorite phrase.

“The thought that Julie might be forgotten was awful,” Margot says. “The kids’ stories assured me that she wouldn’t.”

Friends and teachers surrounded Carrie with love and support for which the Cunninghams are very grateful.

In the fog of events, Dennis and Margot are not even certain who had the idea to start a scholarship in Julie’s honor. Dennis thinks the effort began even before the funeral. With support from the community and WMU, an endowed scholarship was started at WMU for Vicksburg graduates. To date, 26 students have benefited from this scholarship.

Dennis and Margot review applications and select a recipient each year.

“We look for someone who shows determination. Julie was a very determined girl,” they say.

Margot taught home economics in Vicksburg and greatly values her colleagues who rallied to her side, so it is only fitting that at least three recipients of the Julie Cunningham Scholarship now teach in the Vicksburg Schools.

After retirement, the Cunninghams moved from Vicksburg to a home on the St. Joseph River. About 10 to 15 years ago, Margot saw an ad asking for volunteers to help the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department assist families who had experienced the death of a loved one in a crisis situation.

Being intimately familiar with grief, Margot thought she could help. She joined St. Joseph County Victim Services. Dennis joined a while later.

Members are on call to assist the Sheriff’s Department to help families deal with tragedies such as fatal car accidents, suicides, and house fires. The Cunninghams report that almost all of the volunteers have experienced some personal tragedy and just want to help others.

Volunteers receive training from the Michigan Sheriff’s Association. They take turns on call for one week, 24 hours per day every six weeks.

Volunteers respond immediately to calls from the Sheriff’s Department. The Cunninghams go together, one taking the role of consoler and the other helping with logistics, information and organization.

They console victims until relatives arrive and serve as a liaison to the sheriff, allowing law enforcement officials to do the investigating and reporting they need to do. They provide “necessity bags” to victims of house fires and help contact the Red Cross. They also help contact funeral homes and give a checklist of things that need to be done for a funeral.

Volunteers average about two calls per week, but have had weeks with no calls and others with as many as eight. Usually, they are on a site about two hours, but they do whatever is needed. On occasion they have stayed with people all night. Margot recalls responding when an 18-year-old girl had died in a car accident. That was “gut wrenching” for her, she says.

Then, they attend monthly meetings to debrief, where they share their concerns and griefs with fellow volunteers. If volunteers think they can’t cope with a situation, they can ask another volunteer to respond. Having experienced grief personally, the volunteers are supportive of each other without hesitation.

Dennis and Margot have been doing this hard work of consolation and support for over a decade. It is the direct result of the tragedy they experienced over 26 years ago. Their determination to not only survive, but to use their experience to benefit others is truly inspiring.

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