Barista Magazine

FEB-MAR 2014

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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SA: What was the original a-ha moment for getting started with nonprofit work for coffee-producing communities? BF: [One] night, I fell asleep with the TV on. At some ungodly hour, I was awakened by an infomercial. A nonprofit was looking for contributions for starving children in Africa. [I] watched the entire infomercial. I wasn't going to donate one penny to this organization. After all, they probably spent most of it on administration and salaries. Then, I thought. I was going to get up in a few hours and spend a lot more money on muffins, which I considered an investment. But to help a child survive, to me, that was a risk. I sent in the money. A week or so later I received the literature from the organization. They had projects in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, everywhere I bought coffee. I said to myself, "I must be nuts. I have to help the people where my coffee comes from, coffee that has pulled me out of a financial disaster." Desperately, I called one nonprofit after the other to support a project in a coffee-producing community. Many would tell me they worked in coffee-producing countries, but none could guarantee that my donation would help a coffee-producing community. After a while, I was beginning to annoy a lot of organizations as I kept asking for something they didn't have. On one call, I left my name and the operator called his superior and said, "Hey! It's that Coffee Kid guy again." That was the first time I ever heard the name. It stuck. I thought, "Coffee Kids. Hmmmm." SA: Then you went to Guatemala. What was that like? What happened next? BF: In Guatemala, I met coffee farmers and their families for the first time in my life. I was both shocked and amazed. I saw poverty that I still have difficulty dealing with. (Coming back at the end of the day and staying at the Camino Real five-star hotel didn't help dealing with the discrepancy.) I also met extraordinary people with a spirit of life about them, singing to the marimbas, offering whatever meager food they had in their homes. I learned about generosity from the poorest of the poor. I learned that generosity is not measured by how much one gives, but rather in comparison to what one has. These farmers gave whatever they had to a visiting stranger. I felt I had so much more to learn from them. I started Coffee Kids because I wanted to help in any way I could, but more so because I wanted to remain connected to a people and a culture 82 barista magazine that I felt had so much more in their lives than I did. I actually wondered who was more impoverished. When I returned to Providence, I was on fire. I held fund-raisers at Coffee Exchange. I stopped everyone I met and told them of my experience and what I was up to. I did everything I could to support Foster Parents Plan, the organization that brought me to Guatemala. My friend David Abedon helped organize my thoughts as most everyone who knows me understands that I am not exactly the most organized person on the planet. Later on, David introduced me to his friend, Dean Cycon. Dean was a firebrand. He had already had many years of experience in international development and was my teacher for some time. Dean was a lawyer and used his law firm to apply for and get our nonprofit status. The lesson I learned from Dean that has resonated with me for 25 years is never mix commerce and development. There are simply too many conflicts. Susan Wood joined us shortly after we received our nonprofit status. Susan became the executive director and literally made friends with an entire industry. When I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, Susan continued in her position. However, as it became apparent that I was not coming back to Providence, Susan took an executive position with Coffee Exchange and has been there ever since. When I consider the foundation of Coffee Kids I think of the four of us—David, Dean, Susan, and me. I consider that the four of us are all founders of Coffee Kids. I am well aware that I could never have done any of it on my own. Still, knowing that Coffee Kids was born from deep within me, a result of my past business failures and the struggles I had with my family, the result of a Tennessee Williams play, some John Steinbeck novels, a bizarre quadrant, a series of mysterious and defining dreams, and the Camino Real Hotel, I have a hard time sharing the role of founder. I recognize that it is a weakness of mine. I have the deepest respect for David, Dean and Susan. And, I know that left to my own devices, I could never have accomplished it on my own. I did assemble a good team. And, while it was not always a bed of roses, there is a very special place in my heart reserved for the four of us. Our extensive interview with Bill Fishbein will continue online every Monday in February, beginning February 3, at www.baristamagazine.com/blog.

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