By Kara Hildreth
From the June 29th Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages
A Minnesota dark volcanic stone embedded as a keystone serves as a reminder to one Costa Rican family of how love rose to the occasion.
Their outdoor brick oven came to be built after a simple conversation between friends, Jeff Larson and Nancy Alvarado. They wanted to find a way to help a family sustain their way of living in this lush, Central American country.
These two Minnesota friends were committed to living up to old adage: If there is a will, there is a way.
Their friendship blossomed in 1996 when the two worked for different companies and both became loan executives for United Way. The two kept in touch over the years with each other’s family and life in general.
Today Larson works as the external relations manager for Minnesota Energy Resources in Rosemount. He’s also a bread baker known to hand kneed bread and bake his own special loaves
“I like to think I am a good cook, I make bread and I make my own sourdough by hand, and I would get up on Saturdays and make two to four loaves of sourdough bread,” Larson said.
Baking is a skill he picked up over the years. Although he took a bread baking class at a folk school, Alvarado taught him how to bake using ancient grains, so now he breads with healthier grain ingredients.
In 2010, Larson thought it would be fun to learn how to build an outdoor wood fire oven. He took a class offered up north at North House Folk School in Grand Marais. Larson hoped he would build his own oven in his backyard so he could marry his two self-taught hobbies, baking and building.
“I thought that would be cool to have one of those in my backyard,” Larson said.
The class took him down a life-changing path.
Because his job is mostly cerebral work, Larson likes to work with his hands in his free time. “It is nice to stick some iron in a forge and get it red hot, and then beat on it with an anvil with a big hammer and make things out of it,” Larson said jokingly.
Alvarado volunteered to serve in Costa Rica as part of a Peace Corps mission in the city of San Marcos De Cutris, north of San Jose.
“She was in Costa Rica and visiting a family and one of the major sources of income was just taken away from them,” Larson said.
The father’s main job was to maintain and run security for a nature preserve, where he spent time making sure to watch out for squatters or illegal tree cutting.
“He lost his job and sold his property and I was emailing back and forth to my friend, and we said wouldn’t it be cool if we could help them out by building an oven for them?” Larson said.
Larson and Alvarado were committed to finding a way to build an outdoor brick oven for the Christine Perez family in San Marcos.
“We decided it would be fun to try to build an oven for the family, so when she got back we decided to talk about it and we thought we could raise the money for supplies and materials,” Larson said.
They raised enough funds with garage sales, fundraisers and hosting a Spanish garden party.
“Nancy had a student teacher from Spain and she cooked and one of Nancy’s neighbors made Paella and bread and we set a goal, and we raised more money than we thought we needed,” Larson said.
Bricks to Bread
The first Bricks to Bread oven was built for the family, and now daughter Laura Perez is the entrepreneur. She bakes and sells rolls, bread and dehydrated pineapple slices in the brick oven that sits on patio against the tropical landscape.
“I taught them how to make nice artisan loves, but they didn’t want that so they make Costa Rican white bread, small rolls and buns that are like empanadas,” Larson said. “It is kind of cool because they took what we made for them and made it work for their environment, and now every Christmas this oven is the focal point where they have a big party for kids from around town and Santa Claus comes with presents stacked up around the oven.”
Funds allowed volunteers to build a corrugated steel roof to allow protection and shelter from rainforest winds and storms. Volunteers also laid a cement foundation slab for the oven. All bricks were sourced locally in Costa Rica.
Now Bricks to Bread is a nonprofit group after raising funds to construct five outdoor ovens for families in Costa Rica. Building the brick outdoor fireplaces takes about five days. Volunteers can play and take time to relish in the tropical weather, beautiful beaches after working hard.
“Nancy and her husband are working in Costa Rica now, and are putting the finishing touches on the operations and showing families how to cook,” Larson said. “What I like about this is that it is all grassroots where two friends decided to do something and where there is no need for government or an organization — we made it work and I have to imagine it was for a lot less money.”
Bricks to Bread is a project of passion and community, said Kelly Mroczek, Larson’s daughter.
“Well, it takes a lot of research, perseverance, teamwork and community and we are excited for the possibilities blooming on the horizon, and we have some potentially large partnerships in the works that will help ensure the growth and continued success of Bricks to Bread,” Mroczek said.
Habitat for Humanity
Bricks to Bread is talking with Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes in Costa Rica.
“The next step is what can we do to keep people in their houses?” Larson said
Alvarado will use her Costa Rican family roots and Peace Corps connections to see what the next step for Bricks to Bread.
Bricks to Bread would like to consider other projects besides ovens in other parts of the world.
“We had one talk about going to Peru and putting in some water wells — wouldn’t that be cool to be able to give a family a well and an oven. How would that change their life?? Larson said.
Larson plans to retire next May and he looks forward to devoting more time to this philanthropic effort. In fact, he said he would not mind retiring in Costa Rica. He wants to get others inspired to work to make a difference with Bricks to Bread.
“We will be hosting three trips down there to Costa Rica, and family groups can come down and work in stages to help and then take off for vacation,” Larson said. The trips are five days each.
Larson is not fluent in Spanish but said he knows the universal language of humor. He has fun communicating with Costa Rican families and he gets by with hand signs, pointing and lots of laughter. Although he is learning to speak Spanish.
“I know a few words and I have a good time with them and the dad teases me and it goes both ways because I like to tease people,” Larson said.
This summer Larson plans to finally build that brick oven in his own Minnesota backyard so he can get busy baking outdoors. This project will complete his outdoor living space and compliment the pond project he completed 15 years ago.
“We want to be changing lives with a brick and a loaf of bread, and we are happy that it is growing, and quite frankly it is growing faster than I wanted it to,” he said. “I was told by somebody that once you start doing this, it is no longer your project — it is God’s project and you think you are in control but you are not.”
To learn more
Bricks to break co-founders Jeff Larson and Nancy Alvarado can be reached online at www.brickstobread.org or by phone at 612-710-4156. The non-profit group is growing and is looking for groups or volunteers who want to donate time on the project while on vacation.