The product of 15-year-old mother and a 19-year-old father, Roderick Cunningham was born in the crime-ridden housing projects of Jacksonville, Florida. Tragedy would strike Rod even before he entered the world when his young father died two weeks before his mother gave birth to him. In his formative years and while still a young and impressionable child, Rod was exposed to the harsh reality of domestic violence when he witnessed his step-father repeatedly abuse his mother both verbally and physically. Eventually his mother was forced to flee by night with young Rod for fear of their lives.
His mother’s divorce from his stepfather rendered Rod to once again be a victim of abandonment. At first, he was ‘abandoned’ by his biological father when he died, and now he was forced to separate from his stepfather in order to escape his cruelty towards his mother. The absence of a significant adult male influence in his life had an adverse effect on Rod’s emotional well-being, the effects of which would plague him into his adolescence.
Rod found redemption through his decision to join the Air Force. “Joining the Air Force was one of the best decisions I ever made and represented a turning point in my life. The Air Force provided me with structure, discipline, and exceptional influence from men of honor, dignity, and character”, Rod often shares. After an exemplary 29-year career, Chief Master Sergeant Roderick Cunningham retired in February 2016, his acclaimed E-9 rank is an achievement only earned by one percent of the enlisted force.
Now in his retirement years, Rod continues to serve the community in various capacities including that of a mentor to youth primarily in the Tampa Bay area as well as urban centers throughout the nation, he is a leader in the area of developing economic empowerment programs for families, and he is a highly sought-after speaker on substance use prevention and emotional wellness. Mr. Cunningham has delivered hundreds of motivational speeches on a wide array of topics to over 35,000 youth and adults.
A passionate advocate in the areas of drug prevention and misuse, Rod encourages youth to engage in positive decision-making behaviors by addressing the issues of parental abandonment, loss of a loved one, trauma, and peer rejection/bullying. According to Cunningham’s intense research, these are some of the primary contributing factors to the depravation of youth who struggle with emotional pain. Rod focuses on empowering young men, women, and adults by teaching them ‘The 5 Steps to Emotional Wellness’. He has worked successfully with community leaders to build effective programs that inspire emotional wellness and sustainable drug-free living by addressing the root causes of drug abuse, teaching coping skills, and building self-esteem.
Rod is masterful at speaking to the 13-year-old in each of us. His presentations are humorous yet hard-hitting. He has the unique propensity to connect with each person in a room of hundreds as he challenges and inspires them to discover their true value.