A thick slice of fresh Irish soda bread, piping hot from the oven and slathered with butter—that’s what comes to mind for Karen Kelly Kiefer when she thinks of childhood.
“My mother used to make this Irish bread all the time. It was a staple at home. I remember running home from school, knowing bread was waiting for me and hoping to get that first piece.” As Karen got older, she realized that her mother’s bread spoke volumes to her. It reminded her that she was loved and cared for, that she was safe, that she was home. After having her first two daughters, Karen thought more about her mother’s bread and what it had always meant to her. She knew she wanted to pass along a similar feeling to her own children.
“I wanted to find a way to make a memory for the kids, some kind of tradition they could look at and say ‘This is a piece of me, a part of who I am.’ At the same time, I also wanted to find a way to thank God for the gifts of these beautiful children, to do something that showed my gratitude.” About two years passed before Karen thought her girls were old enough for such a tradition. By that time a third baby had come along. Putting her two older daughters on stools and holding the newborn, Karen began teaching them all how to make Nana’s Irish soda bread.
“They loved it! It just kind of became a thing we did, baking bread together.” Soon, the bread baking extravaganzas had become a staple in their routine. If somebody had a bad day or was feeling down they asked to bake bread. If they were happy and wanted to do something fun, they asked to bake bread. The girls wanted to bake bread all the time! “It got so we couldn’t eat all the bread we were making! So I said, ‘You know what we’ll do? We’re going to keep making the bread but we’ll dress it up and when we go on our walks we’ll give it to our neighbors.’”
Karen and her daughters started dropping loaves of fresh bread off on their neighbor’s stoops. They always wrapped it lovingly and included a note with their names, address, and phone number so that their neighbors could call and know the bread was safe to eat. Before too long, the family started receiving phone call after phone call. Everyone loved the bread. Neighbors could not believe they’d received such an act of kindness; it was almost as if the girls had laid $1 million on their doorstep! With all the love it seemed to bring, the kids renamed their bread Magic Bread. Happily they continued baking the magic bread and neighbors continued calling with their thanks.
“As Karen got older, she realized that her mother’s [Irish] bread spoke volumes to her. It reminded her that she was loved and cared for, that she was safe, that she was home. After having her first two daughters, Karen thought more about her mother’s bread and what it had always meant to her. She knew she wanted to pass along a similar feeling to her own children.”
It could have gone on like that forever, but Karen accidentally took things to a whole new level. Sitting at the computer one fall day, Karen saw that Land O’ Lakes was having a holiday contest. They asked that people write in and tell them about their holiday baking traditions. ‘Why not?’ Karen thought to herself. So, she told them about magic bread. And wouldn’t you know it—she won! The family received all kinds of goodies including a set of crystal and heaps of coupons for butter. That Christmas, Karen and her girls used the butter coupons to bake 300 loaves of bread. When they were done, her husband brought the bread to a shelter near his work.
“That night my daughter McKenna was in bed, crying. When I asked her what was wrong she said that dad had taken all the bread and dropped it off at the shelter.” At first, Karen thought McKenna was perhaps upset because the bread was gone. But as her daughter continued sobbing, it became clear that this was not the problem. “She said, ‘I didn’t get to see them get the bread.’ All of the sudden these words trickled out of my mouth. ‘McKenna,’ I said, ‘That’s the gift. You don’t always have to see somebody get the gift, it’s that you gave it that matters.’ So, we started making more bread and giving it to nursing homes, shelters, all kinds of places.”
When Karen and her family moved to a new neighborhood, it was the Magic Bread that opened doors to new friends.
“Spreading bread in our new neighborhood just seemed like a good way to meet people. One of my neighbors, Juliette Fay, wound up being a good friend. She had her own version of Irish soda bread. We got together and talked about what fun it would be to create a bread baking program for our community.”
Sitting down with their elementary school principal to hash out the details in 2001, Karen and her friend decided to create a Spread the Bread program at school. They were planning on rolling it out for National “Make a Difference Day” in October. However, when September 11th happened, it was clear that a little Magic Bread healing was called for.
“It was almost that the bread called us back in the kitchen. We thought that baking bread together could help us, our community, and our kids understand. We started a whisper, telling neighbors and people we met to bake whatever bread they knew how to make as a way to get their kids back in the kitchen and talk about what is going on in our world. We said we’d spread the bread to our community, the police, firefighters, mail carriers, all those support people who were affected by the happenings of 9-11, as well as whoever was in need.” Karen’s husband Sam built a giant breadbox and put it in their driveway. Before too long, it began to fill with hundreds of loaves of bread. “We’d asked people to wrap the bread and tie it with a note of hope, gratitude, or inspiration. The notes were amazing. There were poems, origami, recipes … it was wonderful! Reading these notes, it was like we were the people getting the gift.”
Leading into the holidays, the family eventually took the breadbox down. But that didn’t stop people from leaving loaves on their stoop! As they continued spreading the bread Karen started seeing potential for a year-round service. That is when the idea for her nonprofit, Spread the Bread (http://www.spreadthebread.org/), really took hold.
“We made a ‘bread line’ with ideas for people on how they can make bread for their communities. One of our local teachers took it into her kindergarten class and created a whole curriculum around making bread, they did science projects with yeast, baked the bread, the whole nine yards.” Spread the Bread just started taking off from there.
“You meet bread angels along the way. Through word of mouth it was propagating … I had no idea how! I would just get these emails from people saying, ‘We heard about what you did and we decided to make this kind of bread or do this or that for our community. I ended up connecting with Carol Lee Spages, who’d been with the Girl Scouts for 15 years. Carol saw promise in what we were doing and wanted to work together to create a curriculum for the Scouts to have a Spread the Bread patch.”
As the concept gained momentum, a web site was born where people could download a starter kit and get a feel for what Spread the Bread is all about. Soon bread groups were forming in almost every state in the United States and in part through the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, groups were forming internationally as well!
“A lot of nonprofits set themselves up to fail by making it too difficult. We don’t want to set rules. We try to spread stories—the stories of what the bread means to a person, or what impact getting the bread had on a person.”
“A lot of nonprofits set themselves up to fail by making it too difficult. We don’t want to set rules. We try to spread stories—the stories of what the bread means to a person, or what impact getting the bread had on a person. I think the reason why it’s really taken off is really about others. People see the simplicity of it and run with it, making it their own and spreading it. Everyone is somehow connected in some way to a bread—whether its religion, or culture, or whatever. The concept is as pliable as dough. I am always floored by the ways people have taken the Spread the Bread idea and made it their own. You really can’t fail at this!” Even Karen’s kids got in on more of the action, taking the idea they helped create and making something bigger from it.
“Emma, my youngest, said what about the animals? So, we started Spread the Biscuits! A lot of people care more about animals than about people. Spread the Biscuits took off like wildfire!”
As people continue finding their way to Spread the Bread, the grassroots initiative continues to grow. Three years ago they started a Traveling Apron program to help people connect with others out there who are also spreading the bread. Members of a bread group receive an apron, sign it, and then pass it along to another group somewhere else. In this way, they can connect to the cause and understand that they are a part of something so much bigger than themselves. There is also a Spread the Bread cookbook full of recipes from bread groups and photocopied letters and notes that have accompanied loaves. It’s all an effort to remember the true mission behind Spread the Bread: honoring our heroes and planting the seed of generosity and philanthropy in young children.
“It’s really about showing our young kids how easy it is to reach out to somebody. My kids have a compassion and connection to the outside world that they may not have gotten in another way. We’ve had more wonderful conversations when we’ve been baking than I’ve ever had running them to soccer or somewhere else. And, I love when I hear from somebody that they took their own child or grandchild down to the police department or the food pantry and met the people who get the bread they made. It really shows that you can take something so simple as a loaf of bread and spread it is so many ways.”
Through it all, Karen is quick to point out that the Spread the Bread movement is not about her, it’s about all the volunteers and people it has attracted as well as those who’s lives it has touched—and, of course, it’s about the bread.
Inspired by Karen’s mother Jeanne Kelly and her Irish bread, Spread the Bread would not be what it is today without Karen’s beautiful daughters McKenna (15), Madison (13), Emma (12), and Rosie (8), and her husband Sam, who has built huge breadboxes, made wooden signs, painted banners, put up with hundreds of breads piled up in their living room, shuttled breads here and there, put up with two computers crashing from zillions of emails, among other things!
Thank you Karen, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2010 by Tamar Burris and Story of My Life