West Fargo baker seeks recipe for cleaner water to help underserved people in impoverished countries
Kayla Houchin has stepped up her effort to bring clean water to people worldwide by throwing a Fargo Gala for charity: water May 2 at The Pines Events Venue by Davenport, North Dakota.
WEST FARGO — Based in the Oak Ridge business development which resembles a charming European village, 33-year-old Kayla Houchin bakes and sells macarons, chocolate-drizzled cakes and other delectables from a gleaming commercial kitchen with white subway tile, a fleet of sherbet-colored Kitchen Aid mixers and a giant, vibrant wall mural that proclaims: "You are Magic!”
Halfway across the world, a young woman walks four hours a day to reach the closest source of water. Her daily treks are so essential to her family's survival that she never has attended school. Once she fills the two 5-gallon jerrycans she’s brought to the water source, she will carry them several miles home so her family can cook, wash clothes and bathe.
What could these two women, living thousands of miles apart, possibly have in common?
A lot more than you’d think. Every macaron Houchin sells, every cake she auctions off and every fundraiser she holds through her business, Sonder Bakehouse, helps raise money for charity: water , an international organization dedicated to making clean water available to human beings across the globe.
As a constant reminder of Houchin's mission, a yellow plastic jerrycan is positioned among the many plants, stacked cookbooks and ceramic cake plates in Houchin's picturesque shop.
"I think about it every day. And if I don’t, I always see it, so I’m always reminded," says Houchin, who was just 16 when she first started selling cheesecakes to her neighbors in her hometown of Fessenden, North Dakota.
Now Houchin has stepped up her fundraising efforts by throwing a Fargo Gala for charity: wate r May 2 at The Pines Wedding & Events Venue by Davenport, North Dakota
The event will feature dinner catered by Chef’s Table, a dessert auction by Sonder Bakehouse and a dance in a “cocktail chic” setting.
But Houchin is most excited that the special guest will be Scott Harrison, the charity: water founder whose 2012 speech first ignited her interest in helping the estimated 771 million global citizens who don’t currently have access to clean, safe water.
The good news is that organizations like charity: water could conceivably make safe water accessible to everyone, Houchin says. There simply needs to be enough money raised to make that happen.
“I love this issue because there’s so much hope around it,” she says. “There’s not a place now in the world where they wouldn’t know how to get clean water, so it’s a completely solvable problem.”
So now Houchin, a determined risk-taker with an artist’s eye and a philanthropic heart, is working toward that goal — one macaron at a time.
“I think life is really short and I don’t want to have a lot of regrets and not take risks,” she says. “I think it’s really scary though. I’m still scared most days. But I’m doing it and that’s what matters. Hopefully, down the road, all the dots will connect.”
Baking with a beloved babysitter
The second-oldest child — and only girl — in a family of four kids, Houchin always felt called to the kitchen.
A photo snapped of her at age 2 reveals her love of sweets. When her parents, Toni and Clay Houchin, were working together in their bookkeeping business, little Kayla was entrusted to a babysitter. One day, one babysitter left the adventurous tot alone in the kitchen for a few minutes too long. When she returned, she found Kayla had dove enthusiastically into a pan of Scotcheroo bars, then generously painted the walls in her favorite shade of chocolate.
Later on, Houchin’s “regular” babysitter became Karla DeJong who invited the little girl to join in and bake with her. Today, DeJong continues to help Houchin — baking the cakes that the younger woman so whimsically decorates and providing the recipe for Sonder Bakehouse’s wildly popular almond buttercream cookies.
By the sixth grade, when Houchin’s class was assigned a how-to video, she demonstrated how to bake a cheesecake.
In high school, when Houchin’s yearbook staff held a pie auction to raise money for the annual, her uncle bid over $500 for two cheesecakes which Kayla and her friend made.
Today, Houchin insists her uncle “was just being goofy,” but his generosity helped plant the seed that baked goods could raise money. So did the sight of her mom, Toni, contributing to the family coffers by baking and selling lefse.
It doesn’t take long for word of a good baker to spread in a small town, which is how Kayla was asked to make Thanksgiving and Christmas cheesecakes for the T-Bones Steak House & Lounge in Fessenden.
One day, one of her friend’s moms tried the cheesecake and asked Kayla who made it. “I did,” Kayla sheepishly replied.
Her mother’s friend was so impressed that Kayla was recruited to bake a dozen cheesecakes for her daughter’s wedding.
And it just kind of grew from there.
Looking back, Toni Houchin is not one to brag about her daughter’s accomplishments — even if it’s evident that she quietly admires Kayla’s determination and drive.
“I guess whatever she wants to do, she gets done,” Houchin says, when reflecting on her only daughter’s work ethic.
Kayla says she and her mom are “very different — but I think I got my generous heart from her.”
The two women might also share an unflinching determination. Kayla recalls how her mother worked tirelessly to help raise over $100,000 so that Fessenden could install a track. “She wanted her kids to have a track,” says Kayla.
Inspired by mission work
After high school, Houchin knew she wanted “the college experience” and that she liked North Dakota State University, although she wasn’t sure what to study.
She ultimately settled on a business minor and an education degree in health and physical education. It was a good fit for someone who loved kids and had energy to burn.
It was also during this time that Houchin’s interests took a benevolent turn. At age 19, she participated in a God’s Child mission project in Guatemala, in which she helped build a modest house for a poor family. The finished structure was the size of a single-stall garage and had a concrete floor, but it was the best place that family had ever lived.
“I think that’s when my cause simply became humanity,” she says, “seeing people who had so little but had so much joy.”
Houchin knew she didn’t have the deep pockets to help, but she could do different things — like run marathons or cut her long hair — to inspire others to reach into their pockets.
Then again, altruism seems to be in Houchin's DNA, tucked right next to the baking gene. Prompted by her mother’s own successful fight against breast cancer, Houchin launched her own Cupcakes for a Cure fundraiser. Throughout college, she baked hundreds of cupcakes — each topped with DeJong’s almond cookies, cut into pink ribbon shapes — to raise thousands for Bras on Broadway.
In 2012, Houchin heard about charity: water for the first time when she happened to hear Scott Harrison speak in Fargo. Since then, she has tried to hold frequent birthday fundraisers on her social media accounts to raise money for the charity.
After her 2014 graduation, Houchin did a variety of things — from teaching in her hometown to traveling for a year. She returned to Fargo in 2018 and got a job teaching physical education at Oak Grove. She also resumed baking — first working out of the Chef’s Table kitchen at the Sanctuary and later out of the then-vacant Barbacoa restaurant in south Fargo.
Also that year, she read Harrison’s autobiography, “Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World.”
She was so inspired by his story that she wrote down all her personal charity: water goals and placed them next to her bed.
One of those was to get Harrison to come to Fargo, even though “I never actually thought it would happen.”
But you can’t get an answer if you don’t bother asking. So Houchin sent off a long email to Harrison, the former nightclub promoter whose world view shifted after spending two years on a hospital ship off the coast of Liberia and seeing the effects of dirty water firsthand. Houchin wrote of he determination and efforts to help — and was shocked when the charity CEO volleyed back “the nicest response.”
Her involvement with charity: water helped inspire several very ambitious plans, including a rebranding of her baking business (“Sonder” loosely translates into the realization that every person we meet has a life as complex, full of dreams and full of challenges as one’s own) and the decision to leave her teaching job and build her own bakery, designed to look and feel like a home.
“Nine days after I quit (my teaching job), I decided to build this and it was completely out of the blue,” she says. “It still surprises me to this day.”
Houchin built the bakery with an eye on community and food. It contains three large islands, which come in handy when she teaches macaron-making classes there.
She says she was able to design and build the bakery thanks to several backers who she asks remain anonymous. “I had some people that really believed in me and thankfully still do,” she says. “So I had some people who helped put some stock into this place.”
Inspired by mission work
Through her various fundraising activities, Houchin has raised over $40,000 for charity: water.
According to charity: water data, $40 can ensure a lifetime's supply of clean water for one person. But to her, it's just a drop in the well.
The whole organization has raised $16 million toward their goal, but that has addressed only 2 to 3% of the people who need clean water. "We've got a ways to go," she says.
She is hoping her most ambitious fundraiser to date, the gala, will amp up fundraising efforts considerably.
After all, she is well-acquainted with the many struggles that people in impoverished areas face when it comes to searching for decent water.
She talks of the children who get sick because their immune systems cannot tolerate the only water their families have access to — because that water is contaminated. Or the story of a girl who walked four hours every day to fetch and carry home her family's water in a clay pot. One day, she accidentally broke the pot — and was so devastated by how that loss would impact her family that she hung herself in a nearby tree.
Conversely, people who have convenient access to clean water find their entire lives are transformed. They no longer need to ration out 10 gallons of water daily — worrying whether to use it for bathing, drinking or cooking. (In comparison, the average American uses 400 gallons of water daily.) They can start businesses like pottery-making because water makes that possible. For them, water is hope. Water is personal freedom because they no longer have to spend hours making the trek to collect it and bring it home. Water is life, because kids no longer get sick from it.
"This cause really frustrates me, but when something frustrates you like that, you should feel compelled to act," Houchin says. "I've got to fill this room (for the gala) for people I'll never meet. When they get access to water, they'll celebrate for days like it's the best thing in their life, but it's water. Water changes everything."
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Gala tickets are available at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/fargo-gala-charitywater-tickets-271856629497