EarthLinks: Cultivating Community

Nancy Layne is a former participant of EarthLinks. When she started as a participant in the program three years ago, she was living in a homeless shelter. EarthLinks helped her look for housing and encouraged her while she struggled to maintain a job, and has been a main source of stability for her.


By Nancy Layne | Photo by Stanley Sigalov

The produce grown at EarthLinks is distributed to the volunteers that help grow it and is used to create items in workshops.

As EarthLinks enters its twentieth year of serving the Denver metro area, participants, staff, and volunteers are celebrating not only another bountiful harvest, but also the friendships blossoming within their community. 

Bette Ann Jaster, OP (Order of Preachers), and Cathy Mueller, SL (Sisters of Loretto), started EarthLinks as an outreach program in 1996. They wanted to give people experiencing homelessness an opportunity to take nature trips, garden, and make arts and crafts. EarthLinks now has about 50 participants from around the Denver metro area.

EarthLinks helps individuals who are either homeless or experiencing economic poverty through their workshops, nature trips, and CommunityLinks programs.  In the workshops, participants create candles, bookmarks, and greeting cards to sell at craft fairs. All of these products contain ingredients straight from the EarthLinks garden, which boasts a bountiful selection of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and wildflowers. 

“I like sorting flowers and organizing them,” said Sherry Byrd, a participant at EarthLinks for three years. “What I like best is that being at EarthLinks brought up my self-esteem.”

Many people experiencing homelessness never get the chance to engage with nature. Beth Lindroos, who has been organizing the nature trips at EarthLinks for seven years, finds the trips to be very therapeutic to the homeless community. 

“We all need to get out of the city. Nature feeds our souls no matter who we are,” said Lindroos. 

The CommunityLinks program offers the general community a chance to come together through classes such as cooking, beekeeping, composting, canning, and gardening. Mathew Thomas, a participant who has been at EarthLinks since June, loves the social atmosphere and the ability to make friends who can relate to things he has experienced: homelessness, loss of family, feeling excluded by mainstream society. 

Last year, EarthLinks relocated to a larger facility in the Sun Valley neighborhood. With the additional space, EarthLinks plans to create a second workshop area and a food forest with fruit trees and plants that will support the community and neighbors.  

EarthLinks also offers supportive services for participants, allowing them to meet with a social worker every three months to work on goals such as housing, sobriety, health, education, and employment. Kelly Shinn, a social worker at EarthLinks, said, “At EarthLinks we see the whole person, not just the employee. When someone comes seeking assistance outside of work-related topics, we address it because we care about people beyond their work performance. We think of ourselves as a community and a family, not just a job placement.” ■