When Kelly Mroczek heard that her dad was attending a class about how to make brick ovens, she at first assumed it was just another one of his offbeat interests.
Besides working with bricks, Mroczek’s father, Jeff Larson, also knows how to work with iron and metal, and he operates his own metal forge in his backyard.
But something clicked a few months later, when Mroczek talked with family friend Nancy Alvarado, who’d served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, and recently had returned from a trip to visit friends in tiny San Marcos de Cutris, in the impoverished northern region.
Cristina Perez, a friend of Alvarado’s from her time in the Peace Corps, was struggling. Their family had been turned upside down after a corporation purchased the land from a nearby forest reserve where Perez’s husband had worked for many years. With the destruction of the forest reserve, he lost his job – and the family lost its main source of income.
Perez had sold crafts and orchids to try and help the family get by, and two of her sons toiled long hours at a nearby pineapple plantation. But it wasn’t enough. Daughter Laura had left her nanny position in San Jose to come home and help the family, but no one was sure where to turn next.
Alvarado knew that Perez and her daughter had marketable baking skills, but without reliable electricity or a large commercial kitchen, she couldn’t see a way ahead for the family.
Enter Larson and his brick-oven-making skills – and Larson’s enterprising and fluent-in-Spanish daughter, Mroczek.
Mroczek, who earned a Master of Arts from Luther in Congregational Mission and Leadership in 2007, felt her passion for Latin America, drive to empower women and families, along with experience and skills in working for nonprofit organizations beginning to come together.
“It’s amazing how you look back over your education and all of your experiences and you see it come together in the end,” Mroczek said.
She had traveled to Costa Rica in high school and went back in 2009, three years before Alvarado reconnected with the Perez family. Mroczek was also shaped by her connection to Pueblo de Esperanza, a Latino church plant in St. Paul, Minn., where she volunteered during her time at Luther. Mroczek had always dreamed of putting together her passion for Latin America, new ministry plants and empowering others.
Soon, Bricks to Bread was born.
“Originally we made this for one family,” Mroczek said, recounting how she and her dad, together with Alvarado, worked with their friends and connections to raise more than $15,000 to build a large brick oven – with prep and clean-up station – for the Perez family.
That first oven has been a big success. Just a few months after Alvarado’s visit to Costa Rica, Larson, Mroczek, Alvarado and friends made trips and took donations to install a large brick oven on the Perez property in San Marcos de Cutris. Since then, members of the Perez family have been able to make more than 1,000 sweet breads and specialties every weekend. They sell empanadas, cinnamon and pineapple rolls, corn biscochos and even take special orders for pizzas, cakes and doughnuts – with a 50 percent profit margin.
“They’ve taken the extra steps to get all the licenses to be a commercial bakery,” Mroczek said of Cristina and Laura Perez, adding that Bricks to Bread finished the final phase of construction this summer at the Perez home, a room for processing and packaging.
From facing poverty and loss of home to creating a mother-daughter entrepreneurial team in Laura and Cristina Perez, Mroczek sees Bricks to Bread turning from being about brick ovens and baking to being an organization that focuses on women empowering women.
Mroczek was the driving force behind moving from one brick oven for family friends to creating an official nonprofit: what is today Bricks to Bread. Partnering with a board of business leaders, attorneys, and even students with a passion for Latin America – Mroczek, Larson and Alvarado created their own nonprofit, something that had once seemed like a faraway dream.
“I had that feeling of … I wish we could turn this into something, and now here we are,” Mroczek said.
Through partnerships with the Peace Corps and Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica, Bricks to Bread has identified two more families to receive the next brick ovens. The mother-daughter team of Jenni Bustos and 16-year-old Nicy Bustos are hoping to support their family and supplement father Carlos’ income, which is $56 per week during the winter for cutting grass.
As another brick oven recipient, Daysi Sandoval Hernandez, a widow whose husband died last year of leukemia, will team up with daughters Vanessa (20) and Katherine (15) to build a bakery business.
Bricks to Bread is hard at work raising the $30,000-$40,000 it will need to install two more brick ovens and provide support to the families, such as education in how to run a business and obtain the necessary licenses.
“Nobody is going to be left behind,” Mroczek said. “It’s not just, ‘build a brick oven and leave.’ We want to build a supportive network for these families.”
For Mroczek, Larson and Alvarado – that means moving from a primarily word-of-mouth, personal connection-built charity to something larger. Bricks to Bread held its first-ever large-scale charity event this past summer, and Mroczek’s goal is to earn enough grants and support to underwrite operations, so that all fundraising money can go directly into brick ovens. She currently volunteers about 15-20 hours each week for Bricks to Bread, along with the rest of a fully volunteer team.
Mroczek’s husband, Phillip, even learned block laying for a brick oven at Alvarado’s home in St. Louis Park, which is used to bake bread as a fundraiser for future ovens in Costa Rica.
That oven has become a neighborhood attraction. One neighbor even left a $3,000 donation after his death for Bricks to Bread.
For Mroczek, the best part of the story is not the completed ovens, the money the families make, or even successful fundraisers. Instead, it’s that the Perez family themselves have found a way to use the oven to give back.
They give away bread to families in their community experiencing homelessness. And each year since 2012, the Perez family holds a Christmas party with sweets from their oven and gifts purchased with funds from their bakery.
“Children walk for three hours to attend,” Mroczek said. “It’s one of those things where we’re all getting so far with what little we have it’s just amazing; one of those things where it’s clear that God is at work here.”
To learn more about Bricks to Bread, visit BrickstoBread.org.