Hands on Nashville founder continues to help others succeed

(Photo: WKRN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – In the months following the Nashville flood of 2010, the city mobilized hundreds of thousands of volunteers.

Nashvillians responded in an unprecedented manner to a need that had never been seen before.

Among those, was entrepreneur Hal Cato. Many say he has the Midas touch and over the years he has shown a talent for growing businesses that do good works for other people.

“We all have an innate need to be part of something bigger than ourselves,” he told News 2.

Cato said he finds great enjoyment in helping others succeed.

“Thistle Farms just celebrated its 20th anniversary and we’re at a cross roads where we’re going from being a local success story to a national brand,” he said.

Nashville’s Thistle Farms is the nation’s largest social enterprise led by survivors of addiction, prostitution and trafficking. Sales of its handmade, nature home and body products reached $2.5 million last year.

“Thistle Farms will be the next Burt’s Bees and it will be a household name,” Cato said. “The more sales we have, the more women we can employ and bring in off the streets. We’re a sanctuary here and they come in and let their guard down and know that they are safe, and that they’re here to heal. Our mission is essentially that love heals.”

Besides being the CEO of Thistle Farms, Cato also formed Hands on Nashville when he was fresh out of college in 1991. He said he returned to Nashville looking for something to feed his soul.

“I had recently lost my grandmother and she was really a key influencer in my life. I started doing Meals on Wheels because I knew that was something that she did and I loved it,” he recalled.

Cato’s daily trips delivering meals ultimately led him to start Hands on Nashville, an organization that matches working people with volunteer opportunities.

The organization was a godsend years later when the historic flood hit Nashville in May 2010.

“The month after the flood, we mobilized 29,000 volunteers thanks to Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “When we started Hands on Nashville, we were leaving messages on people’s answering machines because that was all you had – there were no cell phones – but tweet out a project need and suddenly 400 people show up.”

Today Hands on Nashville is one of the largest volunteer resource centers in the world and it helps more than 700 organizations across Middle Tennessee find volunteers.

“There’s no telling what the limit is and what people will do if they just feel like I am needed here,” he said.

Cato also founded the Bright Horizons Foundation for Children.

“My favorite part of that job was creating that foundation and opening play stations and homeless shelters serving families around the country and that’s still going strong,” Cato said.

As for his most recent challenge at Thistle Farms, Cato said he is blessed to be in the position.

“I’m lucky I’m doing what I love and I feel very blessed, but, I’m still not satisfied and I know there is more,” he said.

Thistle Farm’s ambitious goals will likely keep Cato busy for some time to come. He said he gets energized by a project that works for the betterment of people who need a break in life.

For more information on Thistle Farms, click here.

To learn more about Hands on Nashville, visit its website.

Click here for more of Anne Holt’s Tennessee stories.