RIGHT TIME RIGHT PLACE: Teen parents defy stereotypes after years together

Sanford and Shunqetta Cunningham are raising their five children in Jonesboro. Their oldest daughter is now the age they were when they fell in love. “Our lives moved fast because we didn’t know how to settle in that destiny moment,” Shunqetta says. “We were always supposed to be together.”
(Special to the Democrat-Gazette)
Sanford and Shunqetta Cunningham are raising their five children in Jonesboro. Their oldest daughter is now the age they were when they fell in love. “Our lives moved fast because we didn’t know how to settle in that destiny moment,” Shunqetta says. “We were always supposed to be together.” (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)

Shunqetta Shade and Sanford Cunningham went to Blytheville High School together but they didn't talk until the right opportunity floated their way.

Both were seniors in 2004, when Shunqetta drove around town with a friend in hopes of gathering more people to help work on their homecoming float. That friend was a friend of Sanford's.

"We went to Sanford's house," she says. "Sanford was outside, and he had his shirt off and he was really muscular."

Sanford agreed to help with the float, and then Shunqetta invited him to her house.

"We talked outside for hours," she says.

He remembers her telling him to look toward the night sky.

"She said, 'Wish upon a star ... I wish I may, I wish I might, what do you wish tonight?'" he says.

Sanford doesn't remember what wish he shared, but he remembers how he felt.

"It was just divine faith. I knew I would be with her," he says. "It was crazy because at that moment we hadn't dated."

Shunqetta was intimidated by the whirlwind of feelings that came with their initial dates.

"I was thinking, 'I'm about to go off and play basketball and I will be in college, and I knew he had plans," she says.

She was class president, graduating in the top of her class, with college basketball scholarships lined up; Sanford was a track star and headed for college as well.

The timing seemed off for a relationship and she considered breaking it off, but then everything changed.

"We became teenage parents," Shunqetta says.

Their daughter, Taylor, was born in 2005.

"For that first year, I was at my mom's house, and he was at his parents' home about 10 minutes away," says Shunqetta, who enrolled in junior college. "He was in college, and every day, he took me to school or I took his car to school. Our daughter wasn't in daycare because I was one of those first-time moms who wanted her baby with me."

She sometimes took the baby to class with her, if her sister and Sanford were working.

"We spent all of our time together, but my mom is a minister and even though we had the baby, we still had rules," she says. "So he would stay until 9 or 10 o'clock at night to put her to sleep and then he had to go."

Sanford, too, grew up in a Christian family. Both families supported the young parents as they navigated new responsibilities and their changing relationship.

"We were never pressured to get married," Shunqetta says. "We grew together, if that makes sense."

Sanford had known early on that he wanted Shunqetta to be his wife, and becoming a father had not changed his mind.

In June 2006, he asked Shunqetta's father for her hand in marriage. Then he shopped for an engagement ring with the same friend who had brought Shunqetta to his house looking for homecoming float volunteers.

"I went to her house. Everyone was in the living room," he says. "I asked her if she would marry me."

Shunqetta wasn't sure his proposal was genuine, but they discussed their future and decided to make a commitment.

"I had actually pictured myself without her and once I realized I felt the pain of being without her I knew I could never lose her," he says.

They were married on Sept. 8, 2006, at their pastor's home.

"That's the date that we celebrate," Shunqetta says. "But no one really knew we were married then."

Her mother and sister were there.

"We kept asking each other all the way down there, 'Are we ready? Are we ready-ready?'" she says. "We weren't dressed up or anything. I had on a green sweater and jeans and he had on a plaid shirt."

They saved and planned a formal wedding for the next summer, held on June 24, 2007.

"We had a full ceremony -- gown, bridesmaids, my father gave me away again, even though he had already given us his blessing in September," Shunqetta says. "Our daughter was our flower girl. She was 2 then."

Shunqetta and Sanford didn't want people to assume they married just because they were parents.

"When we made that decision, it was really us saying, this is our next step," Shunqetta says. "I know there were people saying that we were young and I know young marriage isn't for everyone -- but it was for us."

The Cunninghams live in Jonesboro with their five children -- Taylor, 17, Tabitha, 14, Tori, 12, Tessa, 7, and Sanford Jr., 4.

Sanford is a superintendent of a railcar company and a reserve officer with the Jonesboro Police Department. Shunqetta is a nonprofit consultant and community advocate.

"We have come to a place where, being a teen mother and married young, to where I think it's great for people in our community to see examples that defy the horror stories of what you can and can't do, even what you were destined to do," she says. "Great things can still happen so long as you trust God and work to get there. I'm blessed that I get to do life with my husband."

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The first time I saw my future spouse:

She says: "He was in track and he was literally one of the fastest guys in school and I saw him run — that was my first conscious memory of him."

He says: "In the 10th grade, I remember she had on a black and white business suit because she was in a group called Ladies of Distinction. I remember looking at her and thinking, 'Whoa. She's pretty and she's smart.'"

On our wedding day:

She says: "I remember looking into the eyes of my grandmother — she just passed in November — and into the eyes of his mother — she passed a decade ago. What I want to keep remembering is that we had such love there with our matriarchs."

He says: "She was walking down the aisle with her father and she looked so beautiful to me. I was ready to do life with her and no matter what I was going to choose her."

My advice for a long happy marriage:

She says: "I am an advocate of date night, so we have a consistent date night. Sometimes it's just food, ice cream or a nice restaurant, but we have a competitive edge, too — bowling, basketball, air hockey."

He says: "She's the only one I try to please."


  photo  Shunqetta Shade and Sanford Cunningham were sweethearts their senior year at Blytheville High School. They married on Sept. 8, 2006. “It was destiny,” Sanford says. “I had always seen her, but I had never talked to her. She just always left an impression on me.” (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)


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