Cavanaugh Bell stands just slightly taller than the tires on the 53-foot semitrailer he and his mother filled with thousands of pounds of supplies. Although Cavanaugh, 7, appeared tiny next to the towering truck, it was his big idea to load it with essentials for people in need — more than 1,500 miles away from his Maryland home. It has been his mission since the pandemic started, and he says it’s in response to some ruthless bullying he experienced.
“After I was bullied and I felt a darkness inside of me, I knew I didn’t want other kids to feel the same way I felt,” he wrote on his GoFundMe page. “So, I asked my mom if she could help me spread love and positivity. And, the more I gave back to my community, the more I wanted to keep doing it.”
At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in March, Cavanaugh — who lives in Gaithersburg with his mother, aunt, and cousins — was focused on helping the local community in the Maryland suburb. He created care packages with toiletries and groceries for elderly people using his own savings of birthday and Christmas money. Eventually, fueled by donations, he and his mother opened a food pantry at a nearby warehouse that a logistics company offered to let them use.
With the success of the food pantry, Cavanaugh, who is in second grade, shifted his efforts to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota — home to some of the poorest communities in the country. He and his mother, Llacey Simmons, 35, had passed through the reservation on a road trip two years ago.
“My mom explained to me that people live on the reservation, and some didn’t have what they needed to survive,” said Cavanaugh. “Some of the houses didn’t have electricity or running water.”
Donations flooded in, and Cavanaugh and his mother managed to fill an entire truck with canned and nonperishable foods, hygiene products, cleaning supplies, and other critical items worth about $20,000 in total. Using donations from Cavanaugh’s GoFundMe, Simmons arranged for a driver to transport the goods, which cost $3,500.
Simmons reached out to the director of a nonprofit organization on the reservation to let them know their plan to send a load of supplies. Alice Phelps, director of First Families Now, was thrilled.
“I grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and I’ve seen firsthand the need and struggle,” said Phelps, who was a teacher for several years and then a school principal on the reservation.
Cavanaugh sent the first delivery July 10. The reservation was so grateful, he said, that he decided to do it again.
“Since winter is coming, I knew they didn’t have what they needed to stay warm,” he said, “so I asked people to donate blankets, jackets and winter supplies.”
They generously responded.
Cavanaugh and his mother loaded up another semitrailer on Sept. 22, packing it to the brim with much-needed items, worth about $25,000.
Thanks to Cavanaugh’s efforts, “Our families are going to be OK for a little while,” said Phelps.
She said the reservation has declared a state of emergency based on the rising number of suicide attempts. From January to August, there were about 168 suicide attempts and five completions, she said. “It’s very depressing,” she added.
On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, whose population is about 20,000, the teen suicide rate is estimated to be 150% higher than the national average. The statistic struck a chord with Cavanaugh because of his own experience with bullying, which began about two years ago, when kids started calling him “weird,” he said.
Cavanaugh attended a Gaithersburg city council meeting when he was 6, and asked officials to designate Feb. 21 as Anti-Bullying Awareness Day in honor of Gabriel Taye — an 8-year-old Cincinnati boy who took his own life after being bullied.
Cavanaugh was able to travel to Ohio to personally present the proclamation confirming Anti-Bullying Awareness Day to Gabriel’s mother.
Cavanaugh’s success with city council drove him to start his own nonprofit organization he named Cool & Dope — an acronym for: “considering others' obstacles in life and dish out positive energy.” He said his central mission is to combat bullying and spread positivity.
Phelps estimates Cavanaugh’s deliveries have helped more than 1,000 families on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“He’s only 7 years old. I’m excited to follow him and see what other amazing things he’s going to do,” she said. “It’s hopeful, during a time when there’s so much uncertainty, to think of what our future is going to look like with people like him.”