2019 Earth Day Feature: Casa Alma

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Casa Alma is a volunteer-led, non-profit Catholic Worker Community started by Steve and Laura Brown in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Catholic Worker movement is a network of autonomous communities which value the inherent dignity of every person. Catholic Workers practice peace and nonviolence, justice and reconciliation, care for Creation, simple living, and service to and solidarity with those who are poor.

Vision and Mission

The vision for Casa Alma arose in response to the founders’ unexpected return from missions in Latin America. Steve and Laura, who founded and live at Casa Alma, wanted their missions to continue and decided to do so by utilizing the simple and efficient lifestyle of those they had met abroad to serve those in need in the U.S.

On 0.6 acres in a diverse neighborhood in the city of Charlottesville, Casa Alma owns three small homes: a community house for resident volunteers and two houses of hospitality where homeless families are hosted. Guests leverage a more stable future by paying down debt, saving funds for future housing, and improving their English language skills.

Simple, sustainable living and Creation care are integral to Casa Alma’s mission and structure. In many low-income homes, any amount of money that can be saved makes a difference, and Casa Alma makes effort to educate guests on the fiscal — and, by extension, ecological — implications of responsible use of energy and water. The Casa Alma homes have undergone energy audits and subsequent modest, yet ongoing energy improvements. On the property, Casa Alma has created an impressive “urban homestead” to model effective, community-minded, sustainable living.

The Urban Homestead

From the street, one might not be able to see much, but after just pulling into the driveway, two of Casa Alma’s projects come into clear view: a sizable garden and a 1,500 gallon rainwater catchment. Going around to the back of the houses reveals even more: a shared backyard between the three homes hosts a second, larger garden, ten beehives, three dairy goats, ten chickens, compost piles, and a budding permaculture experiment comprised of fruit trees shielding an understory of fruit-bearing shrubs and other indigenous plants. In the gardens, a wide variety of food is grown with the intention of allowing guests to experience new, nutritious food in a way that costs them nothing. Excess food from the gardens and animals gets donated to shelters and food kitchens, thus benefiting the community at large. The homestead, kept by volunteers, is nestled quietly within an otherwise ordinary urban space.

The various projects are all aimed at supporting a low-cost, low-impact, accessible, and healthy lifestyle. Sustainability is not what Casa Alma does, per se, but is simply a natural part of participating in the health and wellbeing of community.

In the near future, Casa Alma hopes to incorporate a solar project on the property, as well as increased use of greywater.

Advice to Others

For Laura and Steve, humble service — to God, to others, to Creation — is how they live out their faith. When asked why she wanted to live such a life, Laura responded saying that her work with Casa Alma allows her to do not only what is right but also what is needed. Amidst a society in which humility and service are not often rewarded, Casa Alma allows her, “the autonomy to put effort where effort in deserved and needed.”

To others, Laura expressed some words of advice:

  • First, stay encouraged; know that denying oneself for the greater local or global community does make an impact.
  • Secondly, take risks in making decisions that are not conventional. When deciding to go into missions, followed by turning three run down homes into a thriving homestead, Laura says there were many who didn’t understand: “[Service] takes a lot of people who genuinely love you who think that you’re kind of dumb sometimes.” A self-serving world may not understand the choices of those who live for others, whether it be through service or even making lifestyle changes that support the health of the global community.
  • Lastly, Laura says to start where you are: “Find what you’re passionate about, even when you may not know where it leads.” Whatever resources you may have, use them. For some, this may simply be having conversation among a faith community about service fronts you feel are scarce-acknowledged, like Creation care.
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