Local restaurateur honors those who make a difference

The Colorado Statesman

I met Noel Cunningham just over a month ago to speak generally about his philanthropic efforts as a local business owner and do-gooder. We sat down at his Denver restaurant, Strings, located at 1700 Humbolt Street, where The Colorado Statesman held its holiday party in December. I had already ordered a glass of wine at the bar, Chateau St. Jean Cabernet (very drinkable). The tasting notes found say, “soft and easy…plays middle of the road well; ripe, red fruit flavors prevail and finish nicely.” Cunningham was drinking what looked like a glass of milk.

Strings owner and philanthropist Noel Cunningham speaks from his heart.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman
Singer Prudence wows the crowd by singing “Amazing Grace.”
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman
Dr. Rick Hodes is honored at A Dinner of Unconditional Love. He is the medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Ethiopia.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman
Volunteers welcome singer Prudence, above, at Denver International Airport with homemade­ with­love signs.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman

Mr. Cunningham seemed to be the busiest man in the restaurant business, talking to employees in the front and back of the house, answering his cell phone and talking to people about reserving $25,000 tables at his next fundraiser, A Dinner of Unconditional Love. The dinner was organized in part by the Cunningham Foundation to honor Dr. Rick Hodes, and raise money for his efforts in Ethiopia. Of the dinner, Cunningham stated, “This is the single most inspirational thing I’ve ever done in my life.” The goal was to raise $250,000, which was quickly reached, so they doubled it to $500,000. Last I had heard they had made it to $450,000. Not bad.

Cunningham has been raising money for good causes since he opened Strings 26 years ago. Before that he was working at a high-end club in Los Angeles that wouldn’t help him put on a simple fundraiser. “It really pissed me off,” he said, remembering how heartless he thought the owners were at the time. Being from Dublin, Ireland, he was all for helping the underdog. Thus he was inspired to do good once he had his own place, which he did and has done ever since.

At some point Cunningham took a trip to Ethiopia, and soon after he and his wife, Tammy, started bringing people on annual and semi-annual trips there to help out, and it became his personal mission. He brought students, friends and anyone who was interested in getting involved. He believes, “Everyone has worth, because everyone has a skill,” meaning that if someone wants to do something — anything at all — they can.

Dr. Hodes is the medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Ethiopia. He first went to Ethiopia in the 1980s to help with victims of the Green Famine, and he decided to stay. Then he heard about Prudence while viewing a documentary in Telluride called “Making the Crooked Straight.”

Prudence is a 21-year-old woman who was born with a disorder called arthrogryposis, a disease that has left her with badly twisted arms, a spine that is bent forward, as well as no legs. She is also a beautiful person as well as a singer with a beautiful voice. At the special dinner on Jan. 13, she was the surprise special guest to appear after a slide show illustrated her life story. Then the room went dark, and Prudence started to sing “Amazing Grace” as a spotlight appeared on her. Cunningham said, “There were 140 people crying in the room, including me.” They couldn’t believe she was there.

Mr. Cunningham invited me to meet he and his wife at the airport and take photos of Prudence’s arrival, which was to remain secret at the time. He told me to bring tissues. That statement alone broke me. Then he asked me who I knew that was disabled, and I said, “No one like that,” which is true, but I’m a crier. I took another sip of wine to hide the tears.

I met Prudence on January 9 at the airport to welcome her. She must have been extremely tired from her long journey, yet she was smiling and graciously letting us take photos of her arrival at DIA. Rotary of the Rockies even donated a pre-surgery helicopter ride for her, which Cunningham said she enjoyed tremendously.

Prudence is awaiting her second spinal surgery at the Children’s Hospital in Aurora. All of her medical care, transportation and hospitality costs have been donated. Among the sponsors are of course, The Children’s Hospital, Metro Taxi, and Sage Hospitality/Town Place Suites South East Denver. An anonymous customer of Cunningham’s even wrote a check to buy Prudence a new wheelchair. “It was just great to see it all come together,” the restaurateur said.

Other sponsors of the dinner included HotPress Web, Republic National and Summit Distributors, (who donated all the wine and Prosecco, Italian sparkling wine), Nancy Thompson, Strings Restaurant as well as CBS Outdoor Advertising.

As a creator and facilitator, which he calls himself, Cunningham has had some help from his friends, such as former Gov. Bill Ritter. Along with his wife Jeannie, Ritter postponed their long-awaited vacation after leaving the Governor’s Mansion, in order to attend this event. According to Cunningham, the Ritters thought it was too important not to show up.

When I asked Cunningham how much money he has raised in over 26 years of owning his restaurant, he said, “I have no idea, but I’m proud of the fact that in my heart, I know we’ve inspired people.”