Llacey Simmons, MBA ’11, knows that leadership is all about making a difference.
When her son, Cavanaugh Bell, was being bullied in school, Simmons encouraged him to speak up and help others who feel the same way. That encouragement launched the creation of an anti-bullying campaign and, eventually, a community pantry to help others ease the burden of the impact of COVID-19.
Their story, and their desire to do good in the world, captured the attention of local and national media, and even Vice President Kamala Harris. It’s a reminder, Simmons says, of the importance of leading a life driven by purpose.
Thanks in part to skills she learned during her time in the MBA program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, Simmons says she’s been able to amplify and share her philanthropic efforts with others.
“When I graduated in 2011, I opened a Chinese Immersion preschool, despite everyone's expectation for me to apply for corporate-level jobs. It’s this ‘going against the grain’ mentality that has helped me to empower my son to overcome bullying and to step into what's possible,” says Simmons. “Through the power of storytelling that I learned from my MBA classes, I've been able to help my son tell his story and inspire people from all over the world to step up and make change happen.”
In January, 8-year-old Cavanaugh participated in the post-inauguration “Celebrating America” primetime special, where he introduced Justin Timberlake’s musical performance. Cavanaugh’s invitation came on the heels of his charitable work with the help of Simmons through their organization Cool and Dope, which seeks to help end bullying by 2030.
For Simmons, giving back and helping others has always been a priority. Before launching Cool and Dope, she provided tutoring to children with learning disabilities and raised money with a friend to deliver pallets of bottled water to a senior living facility in Flint, Mich.
That exposed Cavanaugh at a young age to how impactful he could be within his community, Simmons says.
“My experience in Flint helped me show Cavanaugh that you can go from having an idea of helping and recruiting others to make it a reality. It was also important because it showed him the power that sharing with a stranger can have,” Simmons says.
Simmons and Cavanaugh’s philanthropic work increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using his savings from three birthdays and two Christmases, Cavanaugh put together 68 care packs for senior citizens in his hometown of Gaithersburg, Md.
In the spirit of wanting to help even more people, Simmons took to social media to share the story and seek out others who wanted to help. That led to the formation of their community pantry initiative, which has since raised over $37,000 and helped provide over 15,000 people with food and essential supplies.
But just as the pantry was helping people in need get through the pandemic, Simmons says, it was helping her and her son cope with the impact of the pandemic.
“When schools closed, that’s when the severity of the pandemic really hit Cavanaugh, and there was a large amount of fear and anxiety that I had to help Cavanaugh work through,” says Simmons. “The blessing of the pantry was being able to not just sit at home and feel overwhelmed. Being able to be outside safely and help people made us feel powerful.”
The pantry was covered in the local media, and then it gained national media attention.
In March, it was picked up by Fox News who shared Cavanaugh’s story. Two months later, it caught the eye of then-senator Kamala Harris, who retweeted the story which had been picked up at CNN and sat down with Cavanaugh to congratulate him during a virtual meeting. But it was Cavanaugh, Simmons says, that was doing more of the encouraging.
“I explained to him before the meeting that Senator Harris was a potential vice presidential candidate and he took it from there,” says Simmons. “At the end of the conversation, he said to her, ‘Hey, do you want to be the VP? Because I think you could be it.’ It’s just how he is.”
In October, Cavanaugh was contacted by the Biden campaign, and asked to participate in a panel of youth leaders.
It’s an incredible manifestation, Simmons says, and they’re just getting started with making a difference in the lives of so many others. It’s a privilege to be in this position, she says, and she’s looking forward to a future with Cavanaugh full of service and surprises.
“Just like everyone else, I’m going to be watching his future too, but I have a front-row seat,” says Simmons. “Who knows what’s around the next corner?”