When Keon Cunningham’s grandmother, Valentine Anastacio, died in late May, of covid19, his family was unable to hold a traditional funeral.
So, he was determined to find another way to celebrate her life.
On reflection, Cunningham came up with setting up a food bank, as his grandmother loved to see people bonding over food.
In doing this, Cunningham also saw a way to help those whose livelihoods were affected by covid19.
“While going through my grieving process, I sat down and I thought to myself that given we never got a chance to celebrate my grandmum’s life like how we would have wanted it, how best can I make people feel her presence?
“It then struck me that I can do this food bank initiative in my community.
“So I went about taking it from my grandmother’s perspective as she was always someone who likes to see people eating and drinking,” said Cunningham, 23, in a recent interview with Sunday Newsday.
At the UWI St Augustine campus, Cunningham did a degree in social work.
Last year he did a course in managing gender-based violence with the UN Population Fund and was also appointed a youth representative on the board of the Children’s Authority.
Located at the Biche Police Station, people interested in collecting or donating items to the food bank can do so by visiting the station from 1-4 pm.
While the food bank is located in Cunningham’s hometown of Biche, anyone from any area can access it.
“Families assisted were from Rio Claro, Plum Mitan...people even called for assistance from as far as Port of Spain.This just goes to show how much you can do with one thought.
“I made it such as way that people can give what they can and also take what they need.
“What I saw with this approach, from a psychological perspective, is that it gave people that sort of empowerment because now you feel included that you’re doing something impactful and making a difference in someone’s life.”
Since the start of the food bank, it has been topped up multiple times with food and grocery items like dry goods, vegetables and chicken parts.
To date, over 200 families have been helped.
Cunningham thanked Raymond Mendoza, an officer at the Biche Police Station, for his help.
Apart from Mendoza, Cunningham said support for the initiative has been strong and from many people from across the country.
“I have been able to give everyone an opportunity to see how my grandmum lived, because she was one of the people who would have been at the Biche RC Primary School.
“She worked there, and a lot of people passed through during her tenure,” said Cunningham on his grandmother always being someone who touched lives in many different ways.
While the food bank is still ongoing, Cunningham said it has somewhat slowed down and he is calling on anyone willing to donate food items to reach out.
But Cunningham’s food bank isn’t the only way he is seeking to make changes in TT.
He is also an advocate for positive youth development as it relates to ensuring that young people are given the tools necessary to be successful in their academic, personal and professional lives.
Cunningham said his passion for the effort comes from within.
“I’m very eager to see youths in my country grow and develop holistically.
“One of the reason I chose social work is because, even in my community, I saw the need for social workers to guide young minds into becoming who they are destined to become.”
Last year, Cunningham did a course in positive youth development with the Centre for Human Development (TCHD) which is run by clinical traumatologist Hanif Benjamin.
From 2009-10, Cunningham volunteered with the now-disbanded Biche Young Developers group, which was one of his first experiences with youth advocacy.
“We (in the group) would have volunteered to clean up and do whatever to make our community one that is brighter, welcoming and more purposeful.”
Being a spoken-word artiste has also helped Cunningham get his messages across.
“I use my voice to have an impact through spoken word…I volunteer my voice to inspire, educate and motivate people, especially teenagers.”
Cunningham is calling for more programmes to help young people explore themselves.
Through these programmes, he said, young people will be able to greater cope with societal pressures and issues in everyday life.
“We need more mentorship programmes based on not what we think the youths need, but what they want.
“The reason why I’m saying this is – most of the times, those in charge tend to tell youths what they think they need, when it’s very much vice versa. Youths need to say what they need and be given the tools to reach their goals.”
Avenues through which youths can be supported emotionally and learn to cope with their emotions are also needed, said Cunningham.
In doing so, he wants them to learn about techniques to care for their mental health like journalling, yoga, meditation and even art therapy.
“Most of the times, we as young people suffer more emotional injuries than we do physically in terms of trauma growing up.
“Can you imagine a world where people would be more emotionally healthy?
“(The) thing about emotional injuries is that they are not things you can put a plaster over like physical injuries.”
Cunningham is calling on youths not to suppress their emotional injuries with social media and other distractions.
Instead, he is pleading with them to find healthy ways to heal their emotional injuries.
Apart from self-development programmes, he said young people must be encouraged to speak about issues they are passionate about.
“Giving youths that opportunity to express themselves, we’ll be able to see positive change from a societal perspective.
“When you realise how drastically the world is changing, you’ll realise how important it is for youth to be at the centre of everything.”
For now, Cunningham isn’t setting a limit on what he's willing to achieve in the future and so, he's not exactly sure what the future may look liked in terms of what he hopes to accomplish or pursue.
In keeping an open mind, he looks forward to embracing any opportunity which will contribute towards the continued positive development of young people.
“I never really set a concrete goal for life because I always believe that having a vision is very much ideal.
“With a vision, you do not know when the end is, so it makes you accomplish a lot more whereas with a goal, as long as you finish, there isn't any further to go."
Anyone interested in donating to Cunningham’s food bank can contact him at 329-5330 or Raymond Mendoza at 716-7003.