By Shantel-Ann Pettway
Tears of defeat were flowing through Lauren Cunningham’s fingers as she explained to her mother figure, Lynne Holland, how she’d lost sight of her vision when she lost her dream job in 2009. In hopes to comfort her colleague and friend, Lynne, a co-worker at Housing and Residence Life at the time, leaned up from her chair and pushed a box of tissues to the edge of her desk as she gave Lauren counsel.
Lauren had lost her job as a director for a youth arts program called Kaleidoscope, that wasn’t able to continue because the grant provided funds expired. She felt she had failed herself and the kids. “I ate, breathed and lived Kaleidoscope,” Lauren said smiling. “…but it was grant funded; so in 2009 it ended,” she said with a bleak look on her face.
Lauren had never worked as hard to make a project flourish, like she did with Kaleidoscope she said.
She didn’t know what was in Bowling Green for her or even what direction her career would take. “I was left with a blurry vision of what was left for me,” Lauren said.
Despite hesitations to continue in the community, Lauren found herself staying in Bowling Green for 15 years. While in Bowling Green, Lauren furthered her education at WKU by getting her Master’s degree in Public Administration. She worked on campus and began a band, NoizeJoi. After reflecting over her successes and failures here, Lauren has finally decided to take a position at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as the Assistant-Director of Service-Learning.
“This whole leaving thing has been in the process for about 5 years,” Lauren said. “It just never was the time because it never felt right, but it feels right now.”
Lauren, now 34, was born in Louisville. She is the middle child of 4 siblings. Her father was a Baptist minister and her mother is worker for Norton Hospital. Church wasn’t just at the building for Lauren, lessons were also taught in the house she said. She gives credit to those lessons for her passion now.
“My dad and mom have had a major influence on what I wanted to do,” Lauren said. “But my dad, being the major patriarch, was like the champion for how I live now.”
Lauren wants to help, save and give back to others. Those were the things her father did when he was living she said. To an extent, that is what Lauren has done in her own way. She has assisted, saved and gave through Kaleidoscope, her music and her work at the ALIVE Center.
“I could’ve been in a lot of bad things if Ms. Lauren didn’t get me out of my shell and expose me to the arts with Kaleidoscope,” Lucas Byrd, former participant of Kaleidoscope said.
Lauren recalled a time where her father, who is deceased, and sister were outside of Kroger and a homeless man approached them. Lauren, then a juvenile, was tugging at the pants of her father. “Here he comes,” she said.
“My father listened to what the man needed, and if the man needed food my dad would take him into the store and get him what he needed,” Lauren said. “He never looked at appearance.”
Lucille Cunningham, her mother, believed that her daughter had a unique gift. “From a child she had a God-given gift … one you can’t nurture or perfect,” Lucille said.
The gift that Lauren had was being able to connect and build relationships with people from all walks of life Lucille said.
“Lauren could see a hand and say she saw five fingers,” Lucille said. “She looked past were people were and saw where they could be.”
In many ways Lauren also believed to be like her father because she has a lot of hope for the world she said.
“I try to actualize that hope and make it look like something, Lauren said.
At 18 years old, Lauren began a summer camp at her father’s church, specifically for the kids who lived in the subsidized housing behind the church.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, I was so young,” Lauren said. “All I knew was that those kids needed something to do, something to stay away from trouble.”
To Lauren’s surprise the summer camp, Camp Faithful, had a better turn out than she expected. The first year there were about 50 children who participated in Camp Faithful. The next year Lauren helped with coordination of this camp the size doubled.
Seeing the success of her efforts to help others in need made her happy. “It was a good feeling,” Lauren said. “My mantra is do I see the fruits? And if I do, I know that I’ve done my job.”
Lauren graduated from a prestigious magnet high school, DuPont Manual, and continued her education in broadcast journalism at WKU in 1995.
During her years as a student at WKU, Lauren worked at the Boys & Girls Club. Staying involved in the community gave Lauren a glimpse of what her dream job would soon be like she said.
“My early involvement in the community was very pivotal for me to continue this kind of work with others,” Lauren said.
WKU hired Lauren to help with Kaleidoscope as soon as she graduated with her Bachelor’s degree. Kaleidoscope was a job that gave Lauren the opportunity to do all the things she wanted to do she said.
“I was doing higher ed, I was working with the youth, and I was in the community” Lauren said. “Working for Kaleidoscope was a game changer for me.”
The way Lauren envisioned her dream job didn’t turn out the way she wanted it to she said. When she lost the job and all of her co-workers began to leave Bowling Green, she stayed and worked for HRL.
“I felt like I had taken five steps backwards,” Lauren said. “I was very pissed, I was angry, I felt like I had went through all the steps of grieving.”
Lauren believes that there’s always a “silver lining” to all situations. If she hadn’t taken those steps backwards she would’ve never met Lynne.
“She was the person I needed professionally and personally,” she said. “She showed me that there was more to do, she jump started me again.”
Lauren always had what it took to keep going Lynne said. “She was and still is a very capable person.”
Lynne believes that she was in Lauren’s life at that time to reassure her of what she already knew. “There’s a scripture that says a man who seeks his own counsel is a fool,” she said. “And I believe Lauren understood the importance of that.”
Lynne acted as a confidant to Lauren. Lauren was the same way with the people she met in Bowling Green.
“She was always and is a big sister to me,” Sha-Donna Yates said. “She’d ask me how my grades were, how my relationships were going and she still checks on me today.”
Sha-Donna remembered a time where Lauren pulled her away and asked her was she still doing poetry.
“I’ll never forget being in New Orleans on a mission trip with her and she pulls me to the side and asked me about my boyfriends, but she drilled me about poetry,” Sha-Donna said. “Lauren kept telling me never lose your gift, never lose your gift.”
Throughout Lauren’s college journey she had continued to do music with her band on the side. Lauren stuck true to her gift of song according to her mother.
“Lauren always talked about starting a band and she did just that despite me being skeptical,” Lucille said. “I knew that Lauren could take things to great height nonetheless.”
In 2002, after singing at the Boys & Girls Club, Gary Hook, Lauren’s best friend now, heard her and asked if she’d be interested in doing music with him.
“He was like wow, you killed it – I make beats would you want to work with me,” Lauren said. Lauren then became the lead vocalist for NoizeJoi.
Lauren remembered calling her dad and telling him that she wanted to take a year to focus only on music. He was supportive of the idea she said.
“I was like I want to dedicate 365 days to music and see where I can go with it,” Lauren said. “I didn’t want to have any shoulda, coulda, wouldas in my life when I looked back.”
NoizeJoi would become a well-known group in Bowling Green, as well as in other states. The band opened up for Keri Hilson, Anthony Hamilton, did a seven city tour with a band out of Nashville and released their first album in 2006 (Sunny Days) Lauren said.
“I was a performer at that time,” Lauren said. “It was all about the lights, camera and action.”
Now, Lauren performs at small venues like the White Squirrel, a brewery in Bowling Green.
Co-Founder Shawn Stevens says that he loves Lauren. “I joke with her all the time that she’s cheating on me because she’s leaving,” he said.
Shawn is sad to see her leave but wishes her well.
Lauren doesn’t consider herself a performer anymore now that her NoizeJoi days are over. She describes herself as a story teller.
“I get to interact with the crowd and share a personal side of me,” Lauren said.
Lauren found herself back in Bowling Green after she had completed her mission of doing music for a year. The community engagement coordinating position at the ALIVE center opened right before Lauren’s year of music ended.
“I applied and getting the position got me right back into what I wanted to be doing,” Lauren said.
Lauren has been a part of the ALIVE center for 3 years. She is doing exactly what she has always done; which is teach and build relationships she said.
Leaving Bowling Green isn’t something Lauren wants to think about too much about. “I try not to talk about it because I get all emotional,” she said.
She became an adult here in Bowling Green, and a piece of her will remain here she said. “I left the house when I was 18; so I’ve faced the good, the bad, and the ugly here.”
Although Lauren loves Bowling Green and the people in it she feels there are heights she can’t reach if she stays here.
“There are systemic barriers in Bowling Green that they aren’t ready to face,” Lauren said. “And that affects people who fall in minority categories like me: a woman, my race and being in the LGBTQ community.”
Lauren always had dreams for herself she said. One of them was to travel the world. Another is to get her PhD.
Lauren has completed her mission in Bowling Green she said. “I’m confident that I’ve helped all those who I could help and changed their thoughts about things – I’m ok to leave now,” Lauren said.
“It’s her time,” Lucas said. “She has helped many people go onto be great or greater,” he said.
Lucille never thought that her daughter would stay in Bowling Green this long she said. “I’m proud of her accomplishments, but it shocked me how long she stayed,” she said.
Lucille thinks this is a great time for her daughter to venture out she said. She recalled Lauren’s childhood days and how she always sung I believe I can fly.
“I think it’s time for her to spread her wings,” she said. “This is her season to become the woman she has been called to be.”
It’s bitter sweet for Lauren to think about leaving she said, but it’s been a journey worth traveling.
“It has been one awesome ride and I wouldn’t change anything,” Lauren said.
Lauren will be leaving for UNCG to become their Service-Learning Assistant Director. She will be having a farewell dinner Monday, December 7 at the ALIVE center.