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Helen Cunningham

At first glance, Helen Cunningham is — in essence — an educator. A second look reveals her commitment to teach and listen, to serve a community, to mediate conflict and to encourage individual and collective creativity. As the recipient of the 2009 Philadelphia Human Rights Award and as head of the Fels Fund, Cunnigham casts a wide philanthropic footprint in the region. It's all rooted, she says, in her universe of family and friends.





The other day I made myself a dinner: sliced tomatoes, sliced chicken, and — o joy — potato chips.


It was my idea of perfect solitude, a no-fuss meal with the just arrived New Yorker magazine.


As I lifted my fork the knocker sounded, "shucks", I thought, "he's early". It was a stranger, an artist arriving from California, a Mexican who would spend three nights with us to do his work as part of a big project in Philadelphia. So I made another plate and began to get to know Enrique. I was richly rewarded. It turns out we have common friends, we collect masks and are interested in Latino crafts; and we both go for potato chips.


This is the tenor of life for me. This inviting in of strangers has been part of my life since I was a child. My mother came from Mexico as a foreign student. Her warm experience with her host family made us into a perpetual host family. My father was an only child raised in South Philadelphia, but he found himself the father of eight children, the relative of exotic foreigners from Mexico, Costa Rica, and Switzerland. And the host to an on-going collection of international students and visitors.


Dinner time at our house — when we were alone — had a minimum of ten, but often we had — for example — our Costa Rican cousins who were going to school in Philadelphia for a year, a Nigerian studying at Drexel, my older brother's buddies. Thanksgiving looked like the United Nations in session. We learned about history, geography, social justice, manners that struck us as bizarre, how humor is universal, and about food.


We always had a full guest room and, fascinating for us children, we saw all kinds of pajamas.


Some of these strangers became life-long friends.


Each generation has traded children for summers all over the globe: my sister's kid rode horses in Italy, my son learned dirty words in Costa Rica, and this summer, my niece became a fan of Colombian food.


Like my father, my husband took to the open door policy too and so he and I have continued the tradition of having strangers as guests: artists doing residencies at local organizations; sick people coming for treatments in Philadelphia; friends of friends; friends of relatives; students.


The architecture of our house makes it easy for visitors — and for us — to have privacy and quiet.


It wouldn't work otherwise, but the time spent together with our strangers, has made our lives fuller. Because of the strangers who have become friends my husband and I have been to a wedding in Colombia, we had tours of Ireland and the Baltics, and visited friends in India. Our Bosnian student came to us during the Bosnian war; she stayed for college, a Ph.D, marriage to an American and now has a daughter of her own. She is as close to us as a daughter and her daughter is like our grand-daughter.


How could I not believe that opening your house opens your heart?