When Cavanaugh Bell was in kindergarten and classmates called him “weird,” he asked his mom if he could go speak with the president. He said he didn’t want other kids to ever feel the “darkness inside” that he felt when he was teased at school. He told her he wanted to “go get a law about it.”
Llacey Simmons told her son that it might be tricky getting the president’s attention, but he could try the mayor and the city council. So in January 2019, at age 6, Cavanaugh took to the podium at a Gaithersburg City Council meeting and petitioned for a day to be set aside as Bullying Awareness Day in the city of Gaithersburg. (It’s now Feb. 21.) “He is thoughtful beyond his years,” says Mayor Jud Ashman.
Today, the 9-year-old leads a nonprofit called Cool & Dope, which he founded three years ago with the goal of ending bullying by 2030, the year he turns 18. His title is chief positivity creator, and he runs the group from the Gaithersburg home he shares with his mom, aunt and cousins.
When the pandemic hit, Cavanaugh used his own savings to create care packages to bring to his grandma and the other residents at her senior living community—but decided he wanted to do more. He posted on Cool & Dope’s social media accounts that he hoped to open a food pantry and needed help. News outlets picked up the story, and soon even Barbra Streisand was tweeting about him. Cavanaugh didn’t know who Streisand was, but “my mom did tell me that she is a very good singer,” he says.
With about a hundred volunteers (including lots of kids), borrowed warehouse space in Gaithersburg, and $10,000 in donations, Cavanaugh opened his pantry in April 2020. Cars pulled up and their trunks were loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, shelf-stable foods and hygiene products. Cavanaugh’s dad, Clifford Bell, who lives in Laurel, helped out on weekends, picking up donated produce from nearby orchards and hot meals from local restaurants, then delivering them to the pantry for distribution.
By the time the pantry closed in November 2020 (when the organization lost its free warehouse space), Cool & Dope had raised enough in donations to serve about 18,000 people, Simmons says. And that help went beyond Montgomery County: Cavanaugh had visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota during a cross-country trip with his mom in 2017 and was struck by the poor living conditions, so he asked if Cool & Dope could help the people there, too. A total of four 53-foot trailers full of food and supplies made trips to the reservation in 2020 and 2021, Simmons says.
In May 2020, then-Sen. Kamala Harris had Cavanaugh as a guest on her YouTube show. “When you were my age…did you know you wanted to help others?” he asked Harris over Zoom. Yes, she answered, “I didn’t start a food pantry, though. That’s a pretty big deal.” After the election, Team Biden called Simmons to ask if Cavanaugh would participate in the televised “Celebrating America” special airing on inauguration night. (He prerecorded the introduction of a song performed by Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons). And in February 2021, Cavanaugh met via video conference with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who presented him with an official citation for his activism and philanthropy.
But Cavanaugh’s favorite moment came this past September, when he and Simmons were flown to Atlanta so he could appear on The Steve Harvey Show. “Not that many people get to meet Steve Harvey,” he says. “That was really cool to me.”
Simmons says Cool & Dope’s work to end bullying, help underserved communities and fight food insecurity all fall under its broader mission: empowering kids to become community leaders by showing them “how to speak up and speak out, and…that their voices matter.” Her son wants to be a mayor when he grows up. “Before, I wanted to be the president,” Cavanaugh says, “but a mayor can do a lot more.”