Yasmin Cunningham is no stranger to maneuvering through the curveballs and circumstances of everyday life. Throughout her journey, she has experienced moments of happiness, but she has also experienced storms and feelings of sadness, uncertainty and the lack of faith to move forward.
Twelve years ago, during a hot summer day in August, Cunningham witnessed an unforeseen storm that turned her life upside down but prepared her for the woman she would become 12 years later: A woman who deeply became rooted in her faith with God.
As a child, summer months were those that parents allowed children to play outside with friends in the neighborhood, to laugh and to enjoy moments of being a child because, after all, they do not last long. Cunningham was no different.
“My sister (Jasmine), my cousin and I would walk the streets and just play with the kids outside until my grandmother or mother would call us inside to eat and do homework,” Cunningham said. “The other kids would make fun of us for having a curfew but my mom did not play that. We knew when those lights on the corner flashed on, we had to hurry and get inside.”
The New Orleans native would spend summers at her grandmother’s house, which was only a few blocks away from her own home, and the place where all her family would come together to spend quality time.
Young, wild and free, Cunningham never thought that her routine summer days of spending time with family members and playing outside with her friends as a child would become a distant memory at the forceful hands of Mother Nature.
On Aug. 29, 2005, however, the cherished family moments and the childhood friendships that were created went swirling through the flood waters and 140-mile per hour wind produced by Hurricane Katrina. For Cunningham, a storm that lasted a period of hours changed everything that she knew and understood about her life.
“Every year, in late August, I always think of my family,” Cunningham said. “It reminds me of how Katrina changed my entire life. It reminds me why I no longer value material things because they can all be gone within hours.”
Cunningham, 24, grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans with her sister in a single-parent household. She knew that hurricane season was a normal when it came to living in the Big Easy.
In August 2005, Cunningham was starting her first week of eighth grade at St. David Middle School. Two days before the storm hit, she watched her mother tirelessly pack their car to evacuate the city.
“I didn’t understand how serious the storm was because in the past, we stayed home during hurricane season,” Cunningham said. “I remember waving goodbye to my friends in the neighborhood and cracking a joke about seeing them in a few days. Everyone treated evacuation like a mini-vacation.”
This evacuation, however, was not her usual “mini-vacation”. It became the start to the storm that she would face to become the woman she is today.
After Cunningham’s family evacuated and spent more than 20 hours on the highway, they stopped at a hotel in Houston, Texas.
To take her mind off things for a while, Cunningham decided to hang out with some of her cousins in another room. When she returned to her room, she noticed her mother and grandmother crying, along with her other family members visibly sad.
“I never saw them cry before, so, I knew it was bad,” Cunningham said. “They pointed at the TV, and what I saw was New Orleans filled with water, bodies floating, and everyone in the room trying to find our family members who decided to stay in New Orleans.”
From that moment, Cunningham’s mother, Rosemary, took charge of holding their family together by discussing the next moves they would make.
As for Cunningham, her life that was now turned upside down led her to question her faith in God.
“I struggled with my relationship with God,” Cunningham said. I doubted him entirely. I didn’t even open up to my mom about how I was feeling but I felt that God didn’t exist. We lost everything and had to start from scratch. It was hard, and it was the first time I had to learn how to develop a personal relationship with God.”
Things continued to change for Cunningham and her family. They moved from Houston to Daleville, Alabama to stay with some other family members for three months.
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After a brief stint in Daleville Alabama, Cunningham’s mother’s job led to her moving she and her sister to Jackson, Mississippi, forcing Cunningham to leave more of her family members and to embark upon a new transition.
During her stay in Jackson, Cunningham and her family went back to New Orleans to visit their home after New Orleans city officials gave people the opportunity to enter damaged neighborhoods to recover their belongings.
But for Cunningham, seeing her home for the first time since before the storm was a very emotional experience.
“I had to put on long sleeves, tennis shoes, masks, gloves and a hat,” Cunningham said. “When I walked in, I remember swallowing constantly to prevent myself from crying.”
“Everything was covered in mildew. It was dark, muggy, wet and damaged. I remember thinking that my whole childhood was gone and my memory of our first house was filled with darkness.”
New transitions became the norm for Cunningham and her family. With each move, it felt like things were getting harder before they were becoming easier.
“My mother did everything she could to make my sister and me feel at home,” Cunningham said. “She surprised us with new décor for our new place and even bought us a cell phone so that we had little room to complain about what we didn’t have.”
As Cunningham adjusted to Jackson, she would face another storm during the storm. One of her favorite cousins, Randy, was killed in a car accident.
“It was so hard because while living in Daleville, Randy brought me and my sister to school each day and cracked jokes to keep us smiling,” Cunningham said. “I could not believe it because it seemed like nothing good was ever coming our way.”
In Cunningham’s eyes, things were going from bad to worse. The only positive thing, albeit in a sad situation, was that she got the chance to see a good portion of her family at her cousins’ funeral.
From a wider perspective, the continuous curveballs and transitions was not the way Cunningham expected her life to be. After a while, she became immune to the changes as if they were second nature.
Through constant moments of change, it is always good to know there are people who still take time out of their lives to motivate others through their storms.
As the days went by, things were rough.
With each day, however, Cunningham began to notice the small blessings from God and the power of his will to manifest in her life as a young teenager.
“It was blessing to have so many people care about my well being,” Cunningham said. As I look back now, I was learning God from my own perspective and did not fully realize it at the time.”
“The obstacles that brought so much pain then were preparing me for the blessings that would be far greater in my latter years.”
Every day will not be filled with sunshine, but gray skies and floodwaters don’t last forever.
For Cunningham, the hurricane that forced her in to new transitions pushed her faith to new heights, allowing her to embrace the woman she was becoming.
The young girl from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, filled with many scars of defeat and uncertainty, began to kick down the doors of her past and step in to the path of her future.
After finishing middle school, Cunningham went Murrah High School in Jackson, where she quickly began to make a name for herself. She became a member of the choir, where she sang in various competitions. As a sophomore, she participated on the homecoming court and competed and ranked in various statewide poetry and writing contests.
Had it not been for Cunningham’s faith and God’s ability to use her mom as vessel of hope for rise above her situation, Cunningham said she would not be the woman she is today.
“I never grew up with a silver spoon and having to restart from scratch made me grind harder for the things that I wanted to do,” Cunningham said. “My mom showed me that anything was possible by raising my sister and me as a single mother but her faith during the storm taught me that God will allow us to experience hardships to bring us closer to him and that no matter what we face in life, nothing is too hard for him.”
As her faith continued to grow, Cunningham continued to soar along with her goals and aspirations. Traveling 90 miles south of Jackson to the small college town of Hattiesburg Mississippi, Cunningham continued her journey of defying the odds and becoming the woman she wanted to be.
As a student at the University of Southern Mississippi, she earned a political science degree in May 2014, became a member of the Iota Kappa of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., a member of Gamma Beta Phi Honor Society as well as a Gerald E. Mumford Scholar and Karl Wiesenburg Scholar.
After earning her Bachelor’s degree, she went to law school and earned a degree from Mississippi College (MC) in May 2017. At MC, she was a member of the Moot Court Board, Black Law Students Association, a quarterfinalist in the 1L Opening Statement and Frederick Douglas Moot Court Competition as well as a study abroad participant to Berlin, Germany.
Over the last 12 years — — from high school, to college to law school and — — each phase brought a different set of circumstances, a different level of difficulty but an even stronger sense of faith.
Cunningham knew what felt like to be at the very bottom, and she did not want to go back to that physical or mental state of mind. For her, things could only move in a positive direction and they did through the grace of God.
“The physical storm (the hurricane) prepared me for the mental storms I faced moving forward and what I sometimes deal with now on a daily basis,” Cunningham said. “Prayer helped me to overcome things and to keep my priorities aligned for my life. Had I not let go of the troubles of the storm and not focused on living in a new home and new school, I would have not experienced the better seasons I began to experience then and now.”
Now, in 2017 and four months later after graduating from law school, Cunningham lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is a law clerk for The Granville Group LLC.
More importantly, she continues to fulfill her purpose in the eyes of God by walking by faith and not by sight through the storms of life.
“I lost a lot of material things that were not as valuable to God than my life,” Cunningham said. “The memories from the storm pushed me through my doubts, allowing me to see that God had a purpose behind my pain.”
While Cunningham may travel far and beyond throughout her life, she will never forget the city and the life-changing event that helped her become the woman she is today.
“New Orleans will always be my home, and I take pieces of the city with me, wherever I go. Without this experience, I would not have the true understanding of knowing that what is impossible to man, is possible with God.”