Toffee for a cause
Handmade holiday toffee is now helping to build bridges between Carson Valley and impoverished children of Kenya.
“We’re telling them, ‘We see you. You’re valuable. You’re worth our investment,'” said Minden resident Karen Berger.
Berger, 33, has been making and selling Hallelujah Toffee for 10 years; but this is the first year her company has officially partnered with Minden-based Bridge Ministries, which provides scholarships for high school students in the Mathare slum of Nairobi.
“It’s not even on the map,” she said of the slum. “There’s no police department, no fire department. It doesn’t exist on the map because they don’t want people to know it’s there.”
Berger’s connection to Kenya is not by chance. In 2006, her father, machinist and businessman Greg Burns, opened a manufacturing plant in the same developing country. The operation, Essential Structures, employs people from the slums in the production of durable, easy-to-install structures for housing, medical clinics and disaster relief.
The Burns family is also one of the founders of Bridge Ministries, along with other members of Hilltop Community Church. The organization focuses on alleviating poverty in the Mathare slum through educational and entrepreneurial programs.
“Instead of a fish, we want to give them a hook,” said Berger.
She explained that high school in Kenya is like college in America: a student must have money to proceed beyond the eighth-grade. There is no public education for the poor. Parents who live in the slums and have a job are lucky to earn $2 a day.
“A lot of these kids are orphans because their parents have died from AIDS,” Berger said. “There is really no funding to send them to high school, so they become street children. They often turn to lives of crime or prostitution.”
Berger said that for $720 to $820 a year, a child can attend boarding school with food, shelter, mentoring and a summer camp program.
“I have no doubt the kids will do well,” she said. “You give them a boarding school with three meals a day, and they will just fly.”
Knowing times are tough, however, Berger decided that Hallelujah Toffee could help the effort. What better way to spread the holiday spirit than through sweet, crunchy toffee?
“We only use pure ingredients, the best butter,” she said. “That rich taste can only come from cooking it slowly and stirring it by hand.”
Berger’s foray into toffee is an interesting story in itself. In 2001, her husband, Craig Berger, was attending medical school at University of Nevada, Reno, while she was teaching math at Galena High School. Using a recipe from “Grandma Miller,” from the Berger side of the family, she soon discovered the substance that would later become Hallelujah Toffee.
“My father ate a pan all by himself,” she recalled. “He said it was so good that I could sell it.”
Berger offered her product at a high school craft fair and sold out in the first week. She then used the profits to help pay off her husband’s tuition.
Over the years, mainly through word-of-mouth, Hallelujah Toffee has grown into a holiday tradition. Ten years from its inception, the company has a brand new website to draw more customers. Craig Berger is now an emergency room doctor at Carson-Tahoe Regional Medical Center, and Berger has decided to donate 100 percent of toffee profits to Bridge Ministries.
Fortunately, she has a lot of help when the season arrives.
“It just fires you up,” said Jeannie Burns, Berger’s mother. “In the end, these kids’ lives are changed.”
With the help of friends, family and community members, the mother-daughter team convenes in the St. Gall kitchen the first week of November and starts cooking.
This year, the goal was 500 pounds of toffee. Sixty pounds already were sold by the second week of the month.
Berger said most sales are now conducted through the Internet. But Hallelujah Toffee will be available during the German Christmas Marketplace in downtown Minden, 4-8 p.m. Dec. 2-3, as well as at the Douglas High School Craft Fair, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dec. 3.
Profits from 500 pounds of toffee will pay for eight students in Kenya to attend high school for one year.
“People sometimes wonder why Africa,” Burns said. “It’s because thousands of children are dying every day. There is no government support, no one to help them. Unfortunately, they were not born in America.”
Berger said she ponders the same question.
“I’ve asked myself what I can do for Africa. I’m just a mom. But then I realize there are hundreds of thousands of moms just like me,” she said. “I would like this to go beyond Carson Valley. There are people all over the country who would support these specific students. They have faces, they have names, they’re ready. All they need is that scholarship.”
For more information about Hallelujah Toffee, visit http://www.hallelujahtoffee.org or call 267-0482.
For more information about Bridge Ministries, visit http://www.bridge-ministries.net.