Compelled To Offer Hope
In the summer the only ventilation at the asylum was open windows, and little Pat would hear the agonizing wails of the mental health patients begging to be set free or to see their families.
“They didn’t want to be there, and even as young as 5 or 6, it pierced my heart,” she says. Pat’s parents told her the patients had to be there but she insisted, “There has to be a better way.”
Now 52, Pat is someone who helps people find that better way.
She is the executive vice president of Hope Network, a Michigan statewide behavioral health services organization serving 14,000 people and 100 statewide mental health care programs.
Pat’s passion for service to others comes both from her own family and from growing up in The Salvation Army.
“The Salvation Army represents those core values of serving others, putting others’ needs before your own, and seeing the wonderful opportunity of life as a way of honoring God,” she says.
Pat says she was “knee–high to a grasshopper” when her parents, James and Jacqueline Cunningham, began to instill those values in her.
James was a banker who was moved by his Salvation Army background to quit that business and start a housing ministry. That program provided rooming houses and low–income apartments for the poor and people struggling with addiction and mental instability.
Jacqueline came from parents who had no church affiliation or even any interest in religion. But when she was a young girl, something pulled at her, and she decided to take an hourlong bus ride to attend church services at The Salvation Army. Her determination to find something more convinced her parents to eventually join her at the Army and become active.
From a young age, Pat was part of her parents’ work. She recalls accompanying her mom to pick up clients at Clinton Valley.
“It was not uncommon in the conduct of their business that they served someone with severe and persistent mental illness,” Pat says. “Mom would help them into the car and take them for treatment. It wasn’t a drop–off kind of thing. Mom was right there helping them with their paperwork, talking with them, working with their Social Security,” she says.
Every holiday, the Cunningham family would make meals for the women and men living in her parents’ boarding homes and apartments. The baking of Christmas cookies and treats would start in October. Pat and her brother Greg would help with (and taste) the batter and help wrap everything for the freezer. The dough would be pulled out later, baked, and delivered to lonely war veterans, broken alcoholics, and the severely depressed.
Little Pat couldn’t wait to get into the October goodies, but wait she did. And she received an even bigger thrill at Christmas as she observed the joyous reactions their treats evoked in others.
All the while, Pat was taking in the daily lessons of how to care for others, how to talk to the wounded ones to make sure they still felt heard, and how to put others’ needs before her own.
“It was a wonderful opportunity … a way of honoring God and really seeing the blessing and sacred duty of seeing them as the precious souls of the Lord. That has become a sacred trust for me to this day,” she says.
Salvation Army roots
Pat’s roots in The Salvation Army go way back—four generations.
“When your father and your grandpa and your great–grandpa are all Salvation Army, you get it,” she says. Pat’s brother and father have served on Salvation Army advisory boards. Pat says that with the Cunninghams, there is a “family lifetime of dedication, not only to serving others but to The Salvation Army.”
She remembers attending her grandfather’s Salvation Army church, called the Citadel, in Pontiac. Here she learned Bible stories as well as the history of The Salvation Army, founded by William Booth in 1865. She learned how Booth took the Gospel to the streets, where he preached to those not welcome into churches at that time—the prostitutes, the alcoholics, the mentally unstable.
“I loved learning about the early movement of The Salvation Army in England and the risks they took to get things started,” Pat says. “With the values [I learned] in Sunday school, there was connectivity and consonance in how learning and living occurred. There was no ‘disconnect.’ ”
At the Citadel, Pat played cornet in the brass band, right alongside her father and grandfather. She laughs about joining band in school. When it was time to receive her instrument, the teachers assumed that because she was a girl, she would play the flute. She remembers looking with disdain at the instrument and pulling out her cornet. She said, “No, I’m playing this.” She proved she could play the instrument and later used her musical talents in high school and junior high school to raise money for food and presents for low–income families.
During the holidays, she would grab her bandmate friends and go to wealthy neighborhoods to play Christmas carols. Appreciative residents would drop cash into the tuba’s bell.
“One year we made $326; we were so excited,” she says. “We thought that was very cool.” The students bought treats and clothes and had fun wrapping presents and giving them away. Pat says she couldn’t think of a better way to spend Christmas.
‘This is what we do’
The extended Cunningham family—her parents, the kids, and both sets of grandparents—would open their home to people less fortunate than themselves. The whole family would make a Christmas feast of ham, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and desserts. They would serve the feast, pass out wrapped presents, and make everyone feel welcome. Only after everyone else was fed would the Cunningham family have their own Christmas.
The family’s traditional Christmas became a first date for Pat Cunningham and Tim Howe.
“I told him, now this is what we do,” Pat recalls. She watched Tim during the festivities to see how he would react. She says that if he had balked about sharing his Christmas with others, there would have been no second date, and she would have kept on looking for a suitable boyfriend.
But Tim, raised a Free Methodist, was not unfamiliar with the concept of compassion and giving.
“He loved it,” Pat says. “I knew he was going to be a keeper.” Eventually, the two married.
When told that she must feel blessed to be part of such a loving family, Pat nods, a contemplative look on her face.
“Indeed, I was blessed. I was adopted as a baby, part of that caring–for–others tradition,” Pat says. “No telling how my life could have turned out, who I could have been with, or if I could have been at all,” she says.
By the time Jacqueline and James married, their faith and training as Salvation Army members led them to bring infant Patricia into their home.
“Biblical teachings weren’t just what we learned on Sunday and left at church; it is a way of life, every day,” says Pat.
Pat and Tim have two sons. The oldest Jon, 28, works in computers in North Carolina. The youngest, Andrew, is a graduate student at the University of Michigan working on a master’s in social work.
He is also legally blind. Pat, who has her own master’s in social work, knows that some with a disability can become embittered and stuck. But she doesn’t see that in Andrew, who wants to work with others struggling with disabilities.
“He has the life perspective and values that have enveloped him his whole life—the worth of all,” Pat says. “He has a very powerful message, and God is going to use him to serve others in a very powerful way.”
Some would say that Pat’s example also sends a powerful message. Because of her upbringing, she has held jobs as a social worker helping those addicted to drugs, alcohol, and even food. She had a private practice until 2005, when she became an administrator with The Hope Network. There, not only does she help create policy, she says, but her belief system also helps instill a climate of care.
While she holds an important position in the company, the office trappings and title of executive vice president are not what motivate Pat.
She moves forward because of a long–held belief that all people deserve the chance to be the best God has meant them to be. She believes that if, in your role, you can step back and help someone else achieve or believe in themselves—even if they don’t feel they are at their best at that moment—you are doing God’s work.
Pat describes her philosophy this way: “If everything that you do comes from the value system of, ‘What is best for this person?’ ‘Does this serve this person well?’ ‘Are we treating all of God’s children with worth and value?’ You can’t help but create a good organization.”
It seems as if Pat has always been part of a “hope network.”
by Theresa D. McClellan