PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - Sixteen-year-old Holley Cunningham was named one of the top volunteers in the nation by the "Prudential Spirit of Community Awards" program.
Her school, Resurrection High, nominated her after she got a handicap accessible playground built at her little brother's school.
Hannah, Holley, Jack, Ron, Sara, Jonah, Kirstin, Hunter, Dalton - It takes Susan Cunningham two hands to count all her children. Nine-year-old Ron is one of the six who has special needs.
With severe CP, they all accepted the fact that he would never walk, speak or play.
"I was even one of the ones that said, 'Okay, Ron is a wheelchair user and he can't slide,' but he can," Susan Cunningham said.
Ron can slide and swing and play now along with his classmates every day at recess, thanks to his big sister Holley. The 16-year-old spent the past two years raising money to get a handicap accessible playground built at the Jackson County exceptional school.
"So far, we've finished with phase one that was $100,000. It has rubber surfacing that's poured in place, a core structure, swings, a slide and painting station," Holley Cunningham said.
When the playground opened, Ron had the honor of being the very first to use it.
"He had to be the first, he's my brother, he has to be the first."
Holley's gift of always putting others first, became evident when she was just four. That's when her mom says they saw a man holding a "will work for food" sign in New Orleans.
"She was just sobbing and I said, 'What's wrong?' And she said, 'He was hungry and you didn't do anything,' and that was sort of a pivotal moment."
From then on, her parents supported her desire to perform works of charity.
Her mom said, "When she was just seven, she heard at bible school that kids in foster care bring their stuff in trash bags and that really upset her. So she collected overnight bags and backpacks for children in foster care when she was just 7-years-old."
Then she thought of a way to use her birthday to help others.
"Every year, since I was nine, I give my birthday up to a different cause," Holley said. "First it started out with the Rhonda Crane Shelter, then it was Our Daily Bread. And we raised, like after the hurricane, we raised $1,000 for a single mom to have Christmas with her children. And it's just things like that, small things. But this has to be one of the biggest projects."
It's her biggest and most rewarding project so far. Holley is now trying to raise money for a walking track for phase two of her brother's new playground. A place that has changed the lives of hundreds of disabled children in Jackson County.
"We're just all so excited, the teachers, the staff, the other parents, the children because, truly, now all of the children at the exceptional school can go out and play, and that's never been done before," Susan said.