“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 focused 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 Christmas money. Eventually, fueled 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 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.)
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 country.
According to the Census Bureau, half the population lives below the federal poverty line, though some assessments have placed the reservation’s poverty rate in excess of 90 percent.
He settled on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation when he thought back to the road trip he and his mother took to Mount Rushmore in Pennington County, S.D., two years ago, when they drove through the reservation.
Cavanaugh’s mother, Llacey Simmons, 35, 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.”
Donations flooded in, and Cavanaugh and his mother managed to fill an entire semitruck with canned and nonperishable foods, hygiene products, cleaning supplies and other critical items worth about $20,000 in total. Using donations from Cavanaugh’s GoFundMe, Simmons arranged for a driver to transport the goods, which cost $3,500.
Simmons reached out to the director of a nonprofit organization on the reservation to let them know their plan to send a load of supplies. Alice Phelps, director of First Families Now, 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 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 Sept. 22, packing it to the brim with much-needed items, worth about $25,000.
Thanks to Cavanaugh’s efforts, “our families are going to be okay 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. “It’s very depressing,” she added.
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has a population of close to 20,000 people. The average life expectancy is the lowest in the United States, and the teen suicide rate on the reservation is estimated to be 150 percent 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, adding that the bullying began about 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 6 and asked officials to designate Feb. 21 as Anti-Bullying Awareness Day in honor of Gabriel Taye — an 8-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 Anti-Bullying Awareness Day to Gabriel’s mother.
Cavanaugh’s success with city council drove him to start his own nonprofit organization he named Cool & 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, organized 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 care package 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 neighbors 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 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 7 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 8 or 87, you can make change,” said Cavanaugh. “You just need to believe it.”
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