Food Service & Agriculture, Nonprofits, and Small Business & Startups

Helping children one cookie at a time

Volunteer-run Clara Cookies’ profits go toward grants to adopt international, special-needs children.

October 27, 2017
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Gluten Free Cookies
Mary Steketee is one of about a dozen volunteer bakers who take turns making approximately 1,000 gluten-free cookies during the weekly four-hour baking sessions. Courtesy Team Orphans

Rebecca Cruttenden’s life goal is to raise $1 million to help families adopt international, special-needs children.

Since 2010, she’s raised $220,000, mainly through Ironman triathlon fundraisers and, now, through a business that donates 100 percent of its profits.

Between race training and running the business, Cruttenden volunteers 50 to 60 hours each week toward her cause.

All the money goes to the Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Brittany’s Hope, which works with adoption agencies such as Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services, to award grants to families who are adopting international, special-needs children. Cruttenden said international adoption costs can be upward of $40,000 due to last-minute plane tickets, hotels, translators and transportation.

She first raised $10,000 in 2010 through a half Ironman triathlon race. She and her husband Tom Cruttenden, who owns Heartland Engineering in Rockford, received a $10,000 grant in 2003 to adopt their three children from Russia — a set of siblings with some medical special needs. So, she wanted to “pay it forward.”

Rebecca Cruttenden, 42, has raced a full Ironman event each year since then, most recently raising $26,000 through a race in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

She founded the organization Team Orphans when she began fundraising. It acts as the entity of the donations to Brittany’s Hope, allowing others to contribute by competing in races and donating funds. Cruttenden said the organization’s donations have helped families adopt roughly 30 children who now have homes throughout the country.

“My passion is helping kids get adopted,” she said.

Recent UNICEF statistics show there are 15.1 million children in the world who have lost both parents.

A business is born

It takes thousands of calories to stay energized during training for the Ironman triathlon, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.22-mile run, raced in that order without a break. Cruttenden fulfilled those calories with a lot of protein bars during her first couple years of races, but she grew tired of how they made her feel. Knowing how much she enjoys baking, her husband encouraged her to make her own protein cookie.

She created a gluten-free, protein peanut butter cookie, which she has been using during training for about five years. She started sharing the cookies with her athlete friends, and then her friends started taking orders.

That’s when her husband encouraged her to pursue a business to sell her creation and donate the profits. Initially, Cruttenden resisted the idea — her husband was the businessman, not her, she said. And they didn’t need another income; they had already decided they would live off his salary while she stayed home with the three young children. But now her kids were older, and she considered how helpful the idea could be to her cause. 

“I wouldn’t have started a business just to start a business,” she said.

Cruttenden decided to tackle the project. She worked with the Michigan State University Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics Product Center to learn as much as she could about business and food business.

Her sister attended culinary school and helped her perfect the recipe over the phone from Colorado.

In a year and a half, she raised $17,000 on GoFundMe.com and started Clara Cookies in 2015. 

Clara is the name of a girl from Bulgaria whose family was able to adopt her with help from a grant funded by Cruttenden’s third Ironman donation. Clara was born with one leg and now has a prosthetic after multiple surgeries.

A unique business model

Rather than dealing with the rules and regulations of running a nonprofit, Cruttenden would prefer to spend her time raising as much money as possible and send it to the organization already doing the work she is passionate about.

So, in order to raise as much money as possible, Clara Cookies is solely a volunteer project with 100 percent of profits going to Brittany’s Hope.

So far, the business has sold 25,000 cookies and donated $3,000.

She does encounter the occasional skeptic regarding the model of her business and the fact she doesn’t take a salary. But the money is not why she cares so much about the business.

 “I don’t want to take a salary,” Cruttenden said. “I will never take a penny because I love what I do. Because it’s social entrepreneurship.”

And it seems people in the community have gotten on board.

At the start of the project, she posted one message on Facebook asking for volunteers, and 12 people came forward within three days.

Camp Roger in Rockford allows her to use its commercial kitchen and storage for the money it takes to pay for the utilities she uses.

“I’ve been amazed at how supportive people are of my vision,” Cruttenden said. “I’m amazed at what people will donate when you ask.”

Mary Steketee is one volunteer who stepped up at the beginning. She knew Cruttenden from when the two were teachers together before Cruttenden started raising money full time. Steketee said the cause is close to her family’s heart as well: Her sister has adopted five children. 

“It’s a wonderful time,” Steketee said. “I always look forward to my Monday mornings when I can go and bake. We just have a good time knowing that what we’re doing is for a good cause. It does not feel like work for us.”

As for working with Cruttenden, Steketee said she and the other volunteers are pretty impressed.

“Rebecca is absolutely an inspiration to all of us.”

Making and selling

Cruttenden said it takes hundreds of volunteers to make the business run.

There are about a dozen volunteer bakers who take turns making approximately 1,000 gluten-free cookies during the weekly four-hour baking sessions. 

The bakers then package the cookies in wrappers pre-prepared by volunteer student groups. To prepare the packaging, Cruttenden brings the supplies to student groups who want to volunteer and speaks a bit about the organization. They place labels, which come in rolls, on the front and back of the plastic wrappers.

Once the baking and packaging are complete, Cruttenden and volunteers distribute the final product.

The cookies are available for around $2 each in roughly 30 area food, grocery, and retail establishments, including Baker’s Beanery at 2768 East Paris Ave. SE, Kingma’s Market at 2225 Plainfield Ave. SE, Byron Center Meats at 8375 Freeland Ave. SW in Byron Center, and area Ace Hardware stores. 

Cookie orders can be placed online at claracookies.com, with vegan options available upon request. Flavors include peanut butter chocolate chip, lemon poppy seed, coconut dark chocolate chip and dark chocolate chip with almonds.

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