By Lisa Shara; Published in North State Parent magazine June 2011.
Whether global or local, a healthy community respects all ages and fosters connection and support. John Cunningham has a passion for building community that embraces youth. “A community with a good foundation offers its members a net to fall back on.
It even helps to raise each other’s children, by the willingness to be a presence in their lives, even if it’s just to keep a watching eye,” John says.
One of John’s many fans includes Mark Telles, Superintendent of Castle Rock Union Elementary School District in Castella. “John is an unwavering advocate for inspiring and empowering youth as they learn what it takes to become skillful contributors to the vibrancy of their community,” says Mark. “He has the ability to discern what is needed and to inspire contributions of time, energy and resources. John, with others, helped bring the nationally acclaimed Challenge Day program to hundreds of local high school students, giving teens the opportunity to acquire new tools for healthy self-expression.”
John grew up in Dallas, Texas and moved to California while attending John F. Kennedy University, graduating with a degree in transpersonal counseling psychology. He has been an active marriage and family therapist since 1985; a post-grad program led him to Redding in 1989. For the past 13 years John has made his home in Mt. Shasta, where he first met his wife Claudia Mansfield. His two children are Isaac, age 28, and Jocela, age 25.
John has taught in special education, serving severely emotionally disturbed kids. Along with his private therapy practice, John is involved with corporate executive coaching, helping participants make positive long-term changes. He’s also a workshop facilitator. Each aspect of John’s career brings perspective to his work with community.
I asked John who has inspired him to make a difference. “Doug Carter came along and wrecked my world,” he joked. John says Doug, a corporate trainer and executive coach, “inspired me to understand my deeper genius. The way I saw myself and my work was profoundly changed forever.”
John is involved with a project that originated with Doug: the multi-generational Communication Council of the Siskiyou Union High School District. To improve communication between all ages, the Council hosts two ongoing public events at Mt. Shasta High School (MSHS) during the school year.
At fast-paced monthly Communication Council meetings, participants are encouraged to bring project ideas and to share what their project is, what excites them about it, where they ideally see their project going and the next step for implementing their project. The group offers support, feedback and brainstorming, allowing individuals to discern the viability of their idea and to create an action plan.
Secondly, John facilitates a monthly “Challenge Night,” also for community members of all ages. During Challenge Nights, John uses storytelling and poetry to inspire connection and change. Youth participant Chad Oliver says: “John leads you to your own conclusions. He has a mischievous side! It’s one way he relates to teens… a lot of adults don’t let themselves play. He has an infectious sense of humor.”
Storytelling can spark thought and cut through to underlying emotion. While working with gang youth, John recalls, “What’s amazing is how stories and poetry brought the young men out. Opposing gang members connected though a common ground. Working together, it was a time of learning the relevance of stories and poetry and being in community. That’s powerful stuff.”
John is a strong believer in mentoring. “We all need mentoring,” John says. “Author/poet Robert Bly asks, ‘Who admired you when you were young and told you so?’ Young men who are not being admired are being hurt. Men end up in my office and they don’t know why; a root cause is that they were never admired for who they are when they were young.”
John also helps facilitate Leadership classes at MSHS. The classes provide an opportunity for youth to both develop leadership skills and to talk about what’s on their minds. Chad Oliver, a graduating participant says, “John has touched my life in so many different ways. He is deeply wise, yet so playful and humorous that his teachings are as subtle as they are powerful. Overall, I think John’s greatest gift has been his solid support and loving encouragement that has given me the confidence to live up to my fullest potential.”
Contact John at (530) 926-5888.
Writer Lisa Shara resides in Siskiyou County. Her life is enriched by involvement with several community projects.