Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Coffee or Tea?

"The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family." - Balti Tribal Saying

We all know the phrase, in one form or another, "One person can make a difference." It feels so overused as to be little more than fodder for a cheesy inspirational poster. Sometimes though, you get a reminder that there is truth in that phrase, whether that reminder comes from hearing about someone who did it or, luckier still, when you are there as that person is doing it.

At the recommendation of a friend, I recently read Three Cups of Tea, an account of Greg Mortenson's efforts to fund and build schools for rural villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His efforts were spurred on out of gratitude for the aid he received in a small village called Korphe following his near-disastrous attempt to scale and then return from K2, the world's second highest mountain.

While the book itself, written by David Relin of Parade Magazine and Mortenson, is at times somewhat overwrought (Relin clearly didn't check his hero worship at the door), Mortenson's commitment to expand educational opportunities for children can't be denied. Learning how to create and lead a development effort (the Central Asia Institute) on the fly, he overcame remarkable challenges during his quest -- a kidnapping by mujahedin in northern Pakistan, corrupt officials, firefights among warring Afghan tribes, fatwahs from mullahs opposed to education for girls, and post-9/11 threats from fellow Americans enraged that he would seek to provide educational resources for Muslims.

It's in that last challenge that Mortenson was most prescient. He recognized far earlier than many that an education for all could empower young women and build new resources within the communities while also offering an alternative to the Islamic fundamentalism that gave birth to the 9/11 terrorists and others like them. Without schools like those funded by Mortenson, the only voice, the only vision, the only "truth" for many young men and women in these regions is often the word of the fundamentalists, funded by millions of petro dollars from the Middle East. And so he forged on even as war came to the region and despite his vilification by those in America who would tar every Muslim an enemy of the West.

It takes a unique person to recognize a need like this AND to actively take steps to address that need, especially in the face of daunting challenges. Many of us shake our heads sadly and say "oh, what a shame" or simply send a check or enter our credit card numbers in an online pledge form. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Non-profits rely on the people who are willing to write that check, collect those non-perishable food items, walk for a cause. But it's the people who see an issue and lead the way in helping address it that are the ones who truly embody the "one person can make a difference" concept, keeping it from simply being a cliche. They make it possible for the rest of us to help in some way as well.

I count myself lucky to have worked with such a person -- Bill Fishbein, the founder of Coffee Kids. Owner of the Coffee Exchange coffee roaster and cafe in Providence, RI, Bill launched his non-profit effort in 1988 after visiting coffee-growing communities and meeting the farmers and families who lived in poverty and grew the beans that Bill and other businesses roasted, sold, and brewed. Compelled by a need to give something back, Bill created Coffee Kids as a means to direct resources to these communities with a mission to help these families, who often earn as little as 4 cents per pound of coffee picked, improve their lives.

Initially, Coffee Kids simply acted as a middleman, connecting donors to child sponsorship programs operating in coffee-growing regions. Over time, however, Bill and the Coffee Kids team realized that more could be done through direct action within these communities and the role of the organization changed.
  • Coffee Kids was among the early adopters of micro-credit for women. As a result of Coffee Kids' efforts, more than 4,000 women now have their own businesses, empowering them within their communities and building financial independence for their families.
  • Health programs sponsored by Coffee Kids are training women in these communities to diagnose and treat common illnesses, provide pre- and post-natal care, and then enabling these women to train others to do the same.
  • Coffee Kids is funding school programs to provide books and materials, carry out repairs to school buildings, and pay for scholarships for high school and college students within these communities.
I met Bill very close to the start of his Coffee Kids journey. My mother was the organization's first volunteer, then the first executive director, and remains a member of the Board. As a result, I got all the news, heard about all of the challenges, and learned of the successes that came with long, hard effort. I eventually found myself volunteering to assist with the communication efforts and eventually assumed the role of Coffee Kids' first Publications Director. From there, I witnessed some of the maturation an organization like this goes through.

Part of it was a learning process, trying to figure out what would work and what wouldn't. At the early trade shows, we spent all of our time selling t-shirts and coffee mugs before realizing that doing so prevented us from achieving our true goal – actually building a relationship with donors by telling them about our mission. The next year...no more t-shirts at the trade show. Once, we got on the charity road race bandwagon. In the end, the return from the 5K race really didn't warrant the effort that went into it from a financial standpoint and the runners, well, they were there to run, not to learn about the work Coffee Kids was doing in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Nevertheless, those early attempts helped the organization to evolve and remain focused on the mission established by Bill -- to help coffee-farming families improve the quality of their lives. This was driven home most sharply for me when I spent a brief time in Guatemala visiting the project communities around Lake Atitlan. It was eye opening, not only because it was my first foray into Latin America, but because the results of Bill's vision, the Coffee Kids team's effort, and the support of individuals and businesses around the world were right there in front of me in the small businesses and the women who owned them as a result of micro-credit funding. In my journal notes from that trip 11 years ago, I wrote:

September 5, 1997
San Pedro La Laguna

Touching is the only way to describe meeting members of the program's Directiva. Each woman shook our hands and embraced us with a kiss on the cheek, sincerely pleased to meet us. A prayer in both Spanish and Tzuhuil (the indigenous tongue) followed by a beautiful song of prayer and thanks. Five women, probably with no formal training and they rocked the building. No congregation ever sang with more heart and soul.

These are very intelligent women with very clear ideas. They aren't sitting around waiting for us to tell them what to do. They know. They just haven't had access to the resources necessary to put their skills, creativity, and initiative into action.

It's a testament to Bill's vision that these resources are now available to families in coffee-growing communities around the world. While Coffee Kids relocated to Santa Fe and I moved on to other things, I remain a proud supporter of Coffee Kids. I treasure the time I spent working on behalf of the organization, and I am proud to call Bill Fishbein a friend. It's been 20 years since inspiration struck and Bill set out to make a difference. Since then, Coffee Kids has directed more than $4 million into these communities and made it possible for coffee businesses and coffee lovers around the globe to give something back to the people who grow the beans we crave every morning with our cereal and morning paper.

Isn't it time for you to get involved? Here are two ways to do so. What's your preference -- coffee or tea?

Coffee Kids

1751 Old Pecos Trail, Suite K
Santa Fe, NM 87505 USA
Phone: (505) 820-1443
Fax: (505) 820-7565
Toll Free: (800) 334-9099
Email: info@coffeekids.org

The Central Asia Institute
P.O. Box 7209
Bozeman, MT 59771
Phone: 406-585-7841
Fax: 406-585-5302
Email: info@ikat.org

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