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Difference Maker

She takes an eco-friendly approach to helping homeless people

breaking barriers

Kathleen ‘Cass’ Cronan was a lawyer but found her work had limits. Now, as head of EarthLinks, she invites marginalized people to join a community that has an environmental focus.

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    Kathleen ‘Cass’ Cronan leads EarthLinks, which takes an eco-friendly approach to helping those in need.
    David Karas
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On a late summer morning, things are buzzing – both literally and figuratively – at EarthLinks, which sits on a corner lot that used to provide parking for the nearby stadium of the Denver Broncos.

Visitors are greeted with the subtle aroma of the well-tended, colorful flower and produce garden. Participants in EarthLinks’s programs tend their crops, check on the beehives, and pick flowers that will be used for handmade creations.

In the organization’s main building, the pleasant smell of the garden is replaced by that of a hearty, home-cooked breakfast for the participants – featuring some of the very produce grown just outside.

It is a typical day at the nonprofit organization, which was formed two decades ago with a dual focus: to serve homeless as well as other marginalized people and to help the planet. Through its activities, EarthLinks aims to foster a sense of community – and a sense that each person has something meaningful to contribute.

At the center of the nonprofit is Kathleen “Cass” Cronan, who has served as its executive director for more than seven years. She came to the organization following some major life experiences of her own, including the death of her son, and she believes deeply in EarthLinks’s mission.

“People relearn their personal dignity here,” she says. “Having the opportunity to know that there are people who understand what you are going through – many of whom have gone through something very similar – is very hope-giving.”

Ms. Cronan practiced law for more than 30 years. Having grown up in a family that was quick to help those in need, she would often provide her legal services pro bono. For the most part, she says, she provided counsel to ordinary people and small businesses that didn’t have much access to representation.

But she found her work had limits.

“I had become pretty disillusioned with my practice: It is really not a cathartic experience for people,” she says. “People go to that [legal] system for redress. And while there may be an economic result that may be helpful, it usually does not solve the underlying issue or heal the situation.”

Then, about 11 years ago, her son committed suicide at the age of 19.

“Particularly after that, I think the opportunity to be able to be involved in nonprofit work was really life-giving to me,” she says. “That extra home to have to go to, a place that was welcoming – and pleased with whatever you could offer – was certainly very helpful to me.”

And so Cronan shifted careers. She worked for three years at another Denver nonprofit that served homeless people before joining EarthLinks in her leadership role.

The potential for healing

Here, she sees the potential for healing that she felt was lacking in the legal system.

“It is just a lovely experience to be able to have our participants making beautiful things and growing things, taking care of worms,” she says. “Those kinds of things are very healing for people.”

The Rev. Diana Flahive, community minister for Capitol Hill United Ministries (CHUM), an interfaith organization in Denver, was familiar with Cronan even before her tenure at EarthLinks.

“She is a doer, a lover, a worker, one who is determined to help alleviate suffering in individual lives – even if it is in small ways,” says Ms. Flahive, who is also director of the Women’s Homelessness Initiative in the city. “She is not doing a job; she is a person who, from a cellular level, sees the marginalized and sees her community, and believes she must do something.”

One of EarthLinks’s key programs is its microenterprise workshop, which engages homeless and low-income individuals in organic gardening and the creation of eco-friendly products. Participants receive training, develop skills, and earn a modest stipend for their work. At the same time, they set and work toward personal goals such as acquiring housing, staying on track in their recovery, pursuing education, and working on relationships.

Common workshop projects involve growing food and flowers, undertaking beekeeping, maintaining the worm farm, and creating special products ranging from soap to upcycled jewelry and mason bee boxes. Last year, 73 men and women participated in the workshop, and 51 of them obtained or maintained stable housing thanks in part to this program.

“We are really there to meet people as they are,” says Cronan, who adds that each participant has been successful in the past, in one way or another. “They have all had jobs, and many are well educated.... There are so many issues that face people, and it is usually not one issue” why people are without homes.

EarthLinks’s holistic approach, she says, helps participants to escape isolation and find their voices, as well as hope in the future.

“The common goal that people find here [is that] we are all working to take care of the garden – and that really helps to invite people back into the community,” she says. “The idea that you are actually earning, instead of begging, makes a huge difference in self-esteem.”

In the garden

Anna Hertzberg, who is in her early 40s, spent a recent morning weeding and mulching part of the garden where she had planted some leafy greens. She paused as she thought about how EarthLinks has affected her. “Before this, I was very isolated, and didn’t have community or anyone to count on,” she says.

In the more than two years she has spent in the workshop, she has discovered the joys of caring for the garden and reaping its rewards. “Planting food, growing it, nurturing it, and eating it – there is just something special about that,” she says.

Nearby, Charles Prigge had positioned his wheelchair next to some flowers he was carefully picking and placing in a recycled container. The flowers were to be dried and pressed to adorn products that he and his colleagues would soon create.

“It is good for me, and it gets me out of the house,” says the sexagenarian, adding that it benefits all who take part. “It gives [us] knowledge [of] how to make things.”

Inside is an assortment of the items created by participants like Mr. Prigge, including personal-care products and candles – some made with excess wax donated by churches. Products are sold on-site, online, and at faith and local community events. Proceeds support EarthLinks and go toward the stipends that participants receive.

The organization’s expenses last year totaled about $532,000, and much of its revenue came from grants and donations.

Flahive of CHUM has seen the effect that EarthLinks has on its participants.

“Their world changes because they get to get their hands dirty, and they see themselves as contributing and doing something,” she says, adding that many have realized tremendous personal success with the organization’s support. “It makes a difference, it really does.”

Cronan also emphasizes how EarthLinks fosters a closer relationship with the environment. “Earth is our common home, so we try to relearn that: We all need to take care of our home,” she says.

But she keeps coming back to the value of every person, and to the place of each individual within the community.

“People [who are or have been homeless] should not be treated like lepers because they do not happen to have all of the opportunities that others have had for various reasons,” she says. “We are all a part of the same species, and we all bring our gift to the table.”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups aiding sustainability and the environment:

Develop Africa is committed to sustainably developing Africa’s resources through education, training, and other support. Take action: Provide computer training.

EcoLogic Development Fund works with rural and indigenous peoples to protect tropical ecosystems in Central America and Mexico. Take action: Donate for conservation in Honduras’s Pico Bonito National Park.

Globe Aware promotes sustainability and cultural awareness. Take action: Volunteer to help the underprivileged in Romania.

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