Karen McCracken doesn’t consider herself a tree-hugger.

She says she just does what she can to make her little corner of our neighborhood beautiful. “I can’t save the world,” says McCracken, a Merriman Park Estates resident.

“I can’t even save all of the trees in it. But I can plant a tree here and there, other than on my own property.”

And that’s exactly what McCracken does.

“Without her consistency and her diligence, we would not have the funds to replant trees and plants in the park and neighborhood,” says neighbor Barbara Edwards.

A Worthy Winner

Each year since we began publishing in 1991, the Advocate has solicited nominations annually from readers to honor a local resident or a volunteer who is making our neighborhood a better place to live.

When reviewing nominations, we look for someone who works diligently and selflessly behind-the-scenes. We look for someone who is an achiever rather than a talker, a hard-worker rather than a media ham.

When it came time to select the winner of this year’s Advocate Award, we found all of these qualities, and more, in Karen McCracken.

During the past few years, McCracken has:

  • Convinced the City to install a neighborhood recycling site, which she now single-handedly maintains. The recycling site processes more recyclable materials than any other recycling site in the City.
  • Donated more than $20,000 to her neighborhood garden club through her efforts as a City recycling coordinator.
  • Planted literally thousands of plants and trees in her neighborhood park and along the Skillman medians just north of Abrams.

The City operates 56 igloo locations, and a City resident is selected to monitor each center.

“She’s one of the best we’ve got,” says Sanitation District Manager Doug Baumgartner, who monitors the City’s recycling centers.

“I wish all of the people would take care of them (recycling igloos) like Karen does.”

Keeping Lake Highlands Beautiful

McCracken has lived in the same house in Lake Highlands for the past 16 years.

She loves the neighborhood and says she wouldn’t want to live in any other area in Dallas.

“Richardson and Plano just feel so…barren,” she says.

McCracken has moved around a lot with her husband of 29 years, John, whom she met in college in Pennsylvania.

They moved to Lake Highlands in 1980 from Washington, D.C. Once she moved to Texas, she noticed recycling wasn’t as common as it was in other places.

She read a newspaper article in 1989 that mentioned recycling igloos were available to neighborhoods if someone agreed to keep an eye on them. McCracken stepped forward and took on the project.

Each month, McCracken receives roughly $45 from a glass company, $75 from an aluminum company, and $200 from a newspaper company for keeping up the recycling center.

She donates all of the funds she receives from the recycling companies to Merriman Park Garden Club, which turns out to be about $300 a month, says Mary Deen Mansfield, a garden club member.

Some of the money, Mansfield says, have been used to plant trees in medians along Skillman. The garden club also has replanted trees and plants in R.P. Brooks Park, which is west of Skillman and runs parallel with the White Rock bike trail, Mansfield says.

McCracken and garden club member Barbara Edwards planted the slew of new park plants and trees by themselves.

“If I quit doing in the park what I do, I don’t know what would happen,” McCracken says. “It’s just too much work for just one person.”

A Green Way of Life

It seems fitting that McCracken was married outdoors beneath a tree.

And the 50-year-old says she celebrated all of her childhood birthdays parties outdoors.

So it should come as no surprise to learn that McCracken, who has a bachelor’s degree in art, says horticulture is her favorite hobby.

For the past five years, McCracken has been taking one horticulture class a semester at Richland College. Eventually, she hopes to obtain an associate’s degree in horticulture.

She seems to work horticulture into every aspect of her life.

As an avid walker, she finds herself weeding as she strolls around her neighborhood and spies weeds sprouting up in yards and in the neighborhood park, she says.

Her kitchen dining area is reminiscent of a greenhouse, with numerous plants clogging every corner of the room.

“Do you think I have enough?” she jokes.

When she’s not taking care of her plants and yard or her neighborhood’s greenery, she’s brushing up on her horticulture skills at her part-time job with A Touch of Green.

The company cares for plants in office buildings in North Dallas and Downtown.

McCracken says she loves her job, but says she “highly discourages” office workers from caring for the plants because they often accidentally kill the plants.

“You can look at it, talk to it, but don’t touch it,” she laughs, imitating what she repeats to office workers.

Her plant knowledge rubs off on the 35 members of the garden club, which holds monthly meetings, Mansfield says.

“She’s a real inspiration to the gardeners in the neighborhood,” Mansfield says.

“I think anybody in the garden club would say that we really owe Karen a great deal of thanks for the work that she does.”

Sifting Through the Mess

McCracken makes frequent jaunts to the Whole Foods Market on Skillman and Kingsley, and shopping isn’t what’s on her mind.

Instead, she visits the market’s backside to tidy things up.

She goes there to look after her “baby,” which is a recycling center consisting of three newspaper bins, one clear glass bin, one colored glass bin and an aluminum bin.

“Coming from where I do, people have been recycling for a long time,” McCracken says.

Taking care of the recycling center doesn’t seem like a big deal in the least to McCracken.

“It’s not an inconvenience,” she says. “If it gets messy, I sweep up.”

Baumgartner says the Whole Foods location is easy to take care of, despite its heavy usage, because McCracken calls Baumgartner at least once a week and lets him know when the center needs to be emptied.

And if people dump junk they think will be picked up to be recycled, such as grass clippings or plastic, McCracken hauls the stuff home with her and puts it in her own garbage.

This way, the center stays clean and the center’s host, Whole Foods, doesn’t become annoyed with a mess behind their store, she says.

“It’s a wonderful service for the folks here in Lake Highlands,” says Tim Lenihan, team leader for Whole Foods at Kingsley and Skillman.

“A recycling center is messy,” Lenihan says. “But for the most part, they (Karen and the City) do a great job with it.”

McCracken says she’s pleased to see people from throughout the City using the center.

At some point, recycling will become a way of life everywhere, she says, because there is no way “we can keep throwing things out indefinitely.”

She shares her recycling views with her neighborhood every once in while with articles for the Merriman Park Estates Homeowners Organization’s newsletter.

Her family isn’t exempt from her recycling views, either. She has a daughter who is a senior at North Texas University and a son who is a freshman at Richland College.

Her husband is a finance professor at the University of Texas in Dallas.

For the most part, McCracken says her family recycles regularly.

“Every now and then, I’ll find an aluminum can in the trash. They’ll try and hide it,” she laughs.

“But I think that’s normal rebellion.”