Man provides a hand up to others

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Johnny Cunningham of The ReGroup 1 works on the renovation of a house Monday on Marigold Street.


Staff Writer

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Johnny Cunningham is known in the community for his strong criticism of the Rocky Mount City Council during the public comment portion of monthly council meetings.

Cunningham has repeatedly said city officials aren’t putting enough resources in improving the impoverished neighborhoods in Rocky Mount. As for Cunningham, he believes he’s trying to do his part to enhance the poor neighborhoods that have a reputation of being high-crime areas in Rocky Mount.

Cunningham is the founder and executive director of a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization called The ReGroup 1 that started in 2015. Cunningham, who has been doing home repair work for 27 years, said his nonprofit group works to rehab and restore old rundown homes in low-income communities — but more importantly, to create jobs for young men that in most cases have criminal records.

Cunningham trains the men on how to properly use tools to help renovate a home when work is available. He said the workers are paid $8 an hour and receive their paychecks every Friday.

While he could earn more, Cunningham said, he gets paid $12 an hour so can create work for the troubled young men in the area. Currently, Cunningham said, he has two guys working for him, who are both are fathers with children.

“These guys are unskilled, uneducated and unemployable with criminal backgrounds, but these are the people that we target and try to hire because they’re the ones that need that help,” Cunningham said. “A lot of these guys’ criminal records are minor charges. I let them know this is an opportunity. But the bottom line is this isn’t a second chance but their last chance, because nobody else is going to give them opportunity for employment.”

Cunningham’s life is similar to the young men he hires. Cunningham said he lost both of his parents when he was a teenager and was homeless. He later started committing crimes that included burglary, grand larceny and break-ins. Cunningham said he was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was released after serving seven years.

After he transitioned back into society, Cunningham said, he got connected with a property owner who taught him different skills in home repair, which is something Cunningham is trying to incorporate into the men he is working with. Cunningham said he knew that in order to have a stable source of income, he had to create work for himself.

“I knew with my background, that was important for me to constantly create employment for myself,” Cunningham said. “It’s absolutely nothing that I can’t do to fix a house. The thing that I’m trying to instill in these guys is that you can’t depend on one skill.”

Recently, The ReGroup 1 finished the renovation of a home on Marigold Street where a young woman and her children reside. Cunningham is now fixing up another home at 546 Marigold St. Cunningham has implored the council in past meetings not to ignore the 15 low-income, mostly black communities in Rocky Mount or leave them out of the city’s redevelopment plans.

An issue that Cunningham has continued to express to council members is his feeling of gentrification happening in Rocky Mount, which is the process of renovation of deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of the influx of more affluent residents. The term also suggests the displacement of poor people in those communities by rich outsiders.

“What we’re trying to do is reverse the process of the negative impact gentrification has on impoverished communities,” Cunningham said.