How a Danville teen’s fieldtrip led to a life-changing venture
By Lou Fancher
Four days in Alyse Cronin’s life changed everything.
As a student in 2010 at Concord’s all-girls Carondelet High School, then-16-year-old Cronin participated in the “Ven a Ver” (Come and See) program led since 1999 by De La Salle High School campus minister Roger Hassett.
Working to support and tutor children and teens in 25 migrant families in Gonzales, a Monterey County city of roughly 8,000 people near Salinas, Cronin said she experienced a surge of respect, empathy and urgency for activism.
Returning to her home and family — her father, a first-generation Irish immigrant; her mother, a first-generation immigrant from Central America — Cronin was unsettled, but not uncertain.
“I come from a family of immigrants and parents who give; my father founded Dante’s Boys Foundation (formerly The Dante Benedetti Foundation) and my mom is on the Great Minds in STEM board. Still, it was eye-opening. I knew I couldn’t go back to my daily life,” said Cronin, 23. “These people had taught me so much. They had little but made do with what they had. Teens my age took care of up to 30 kids so their parents could work. They all looked out for each other.”
But the kids’ outlooks were limited; many set goals to be lettuce pickers because lettuce isn’t seasonal and the job represents “cream of the crop” year-round employment. Completing high school, attending college or having a career with a living-wage income to support a family weren’t goals in the picture.
Cronin founded Running With Love, a nonprofit that from its grass-root origins in 2010 had a mission to achieve a 100 percent high school completion rate for migrant children. It has grown by 2017 to forms of support that include food, clothing, school supplies, field trips, mentoring, tutoring and college scholarships.
Headquartered in Danville, the organization is run by Cronin from New York, where the 2016 Villanova University graduate is a financial services consultant with IBM. She returns almost monthly to participate with the seven-member board of directors in activities at RWL Camp Corda or field trips with camp participants to universities, businesses and cultural institutions.
When she launched the organization, Cronin didn’t anticipate the amount of work required — research, fundraising, coordinating volunteers, hiring lawyers to establish 501c3 status and more. Initially, the willingness of people in her Tri-Valley community to help surprised Cronin. Now, her confidence is firm. The primary concern is growing fast enough to keep up with the initiatives and needs. Funding arrives from private foundations, grants and an annual gala.
“We raised over $10,000 this year,” she says. “We started five years ago with garage sales making roughly $1,000, so we’re definitely growing.”
Further evidence of the nonprofit’s increasing impact arrives from Luis Morales, 20, a junior attending Chico State.
“The organization motivated me. Growing up, I didn’t have someone to show me what was possible. They asked me my future aspirations, taught me that with hard work I could finish high school and go to college,” Morales said. “It was the encouragement, more than the food they brought at holidays.”
Studying crop science, Morales expects to graduate in 2019 and plans to become an agricultural pest control adviser. As a Running With Love scholarship recipient, Morales meets a commitment to tutor and mentor children in his hometown community.
“I motivate the middle schoolers to think they can graduate high school, go to college, because I did it. They ask me about living on my own, registering for classes. I have insights into the responsibilities. I wish I had had someone before me to guide my transitions. I want to help them; to make it smoother.”
Similarly, Rigoberto Valdez, 22, said financial support he received has helped him become a full-time student at Missouri State University West Plain. Guidance and the “boost of confidence” provided by people who believed in him inspires ambition. Working full-time at Estancia Winery while attending school, his goal is to become a winemaker and head of the cellar.
While helping students in Gonzales with homework, he shares a simple message: “Don’t feel alone in the process to pursue your educational goals. There are people to support you, you will find someone to believe in you, just keep pushing forward. You can do it.”
De La Salle’s Hassett, asked if the trips he makes to Salinas and San Diego with Bay Area students should be standard high school curriculum, is unequivocal.
“Absolutely. You can learn all the math there is, but you won’t understand or have quality human relationships unless you’re a person of compassion, empathy and humility.”
Cronin’s response to the trip that costs $250 (for transportation, meals and a small donation to the community) is unusual only in scale, according to Hassett. “I know of two Carondelet students who took gap years to work with nonprofits. It radically altered their career objectives. One of our male students took a year to teach in Columbia and became an architect. The community-based nature of the trip impacts his work and designs. If a genie popped out of a bottle, I’d ask to do four or five of these trips every month.”
Cronin, her eye on the horizon, says a computer lab is in a planning phase. Bridging the digital divide will require more than “putting computers in rooms and slapping a lock on a door for security.” LIkely, it will take people like Valdez and Morales; young people motivated by Cronin to believe in