by Helen Russell
There are many reasons why we love running a coffee company. One is watching top chefs fall hopelessly in love with our single-origin coffees and blends. Another is leveraging our business to create social change. In our 16 years roasting coffee for restaurants and cafes, we’ve focused as much on social equity as we have quality in the cup, because the two issues are intimately connected. To get closer to the family farmers upon whose labor we depend to grow our coffees, we’ve supported social enterprise pioneers such as Sustainable Harvest and mission-critical projects such as Women in Coffee. Now we’ve taken an even more hands-on approach.
Last week Brooke and I returned from Finca Sophia, our coffee farm in Panama. Since we purchased the farm in 2008, we’ve made great progress. On this visit, we saw that we still have far to go. We inaugurated our safe, comfortable and eco-friendly worker housing, washed our first cherries from our rare Geisha variety coffee plants, and saw the progress on our farm, which we’re stewarding as a labor of love in order to grow the best coffee in the world. From the beginning, when we’ve said “best” coffee, we’ve not only meant taste, but coffee that is grown with the best practices to support the environment, community, and workers.
One of my proudest moments on the farm thus far was seeing one of our farm workers’ daughters, Angelica, beat the tremendous odds stacked against her: we watched her as she rode her horse down a tree-lined dirt road, on her way to school for the first time.
What odds did Angelica have to beat? More than anyone could imagine. Many children in coffee-growing countries do not even have the most basic educational opportunities, as many families struggle with daily survival needs such as food, housing and medical care. While global coffee prices are now at a 34-year high, the farmer communities who do the hard work of planting, pruning, and harvesting the coffee see little increase in their wages or improvement in quality of life. Unless they make enough money to send their children to school, the cycle of poverty they live in will continue. Angelica’s challenge was even more difficult.
When we first met Angelica in 2008, she was a shy six-year-old. She is one of four children of Angel and Argelia, ethnic Panamanian Ngobe Indians who live in the new worker housing we built on our farm. When we greeted the family, Angelica hid behind her mother’s skirts, too shy and overwhelmed to make eye contact with us. And we noticed something else that concerned us. The farm manager’s voice was sad as he told us that Angelica’s leg was badly deformed. Catherine Cadloni, our partner Willem Boot’s wife, who has a background in nursing, confirmed our fears that Angelica wasn’t able to walk properly. With her serious deformity, she would never be able to walk the 2 miles down to the bottom of the farm to catch the bus to school.
As soon as Catherine’s evaluation sunk in, we decided to take action. We rushed Angelica to a doctor, and found that as a result of an untreated infection in her infancy, her leg would never be normal. She would always walk with an extreme limp, and her spine would become deformed, causing her great pain and difficulty in later life. Because her ankle and knee joints had not developed normally, the possibility of reconstructing her leg was small, and would mean that, even if successful, she would always have legs of different lengths. At every step, she would be at risk of losing her leg.
Despite the odds, we were determined to help Angelica lead a normal life. We arranged to fly her to Shriner’s Hospital in Tampa for treatment, which agreed to pay for her surgery. We raised money - including a contribution from the First Lady of Panama - to help pay for Angelica and her mother’s expenses during the long recovery period in Tampa. They were very frightened to get on the airplane in Panama City and then on to Tampa since they had never been further from the jungle highlands where they live than the nearest town -- but we had people helping them every step of the way.
The doctors in Tampa agreed with the Panamanian doctor’s assessment, that Angelica’s leg could not be saved. What they could do though, is amputate her damaged leg and give her a state-of-the-art prosthesis, so that she could run and play like any other child. The doctors at Shriner’s were wonderful; one of them, who was from Panama, took a special interest in Angelica’s case, lavishing attention and concern on the little girl. To our delight, the surgery and her long recovery were both highly successful. With her new leg, she can walk, run and play. Her prosthesis will expand as she grows older, so that she will always be able to walk properly.
We saw Angelica in April on our trip to Panama, and she was a transformed little girl. She is still shy, but she beams with a big smile, and is proud to show how she can walk like her siblings and all the other children. To make sure she could catch up in her education, we arranged for her to be sent to private school. Even with her new leg, Angelica couldn’t walk the rough dirt road the distance to her school, so we bought a cream-colored horse, Barista, for her to ride.
Now she goes to school every day, and this bright little girl returned with a good report card. She loves her new school uniform, twirling it proudly to show off its pretty colors, and is just a normal, smiling, playful kid.
The distance between Equator’s headquarters in Northern California and our coffee farm in Panama is far, in terms of distance and economic, social and cultural factors. Yet, we’re committed to breaking the cycle that prevents children from accessing educational opportunities, at least on our own farm. One of the reasons we love the specialty coffee business is that, with proper attention and sincere investment, coffee is all about deepening relationships with the people who grow it.
In this case, we’ve been able to change the life of a little girl who otherwise would never be educated or have a happy life in her farming community, and who would have a deformity that would worsen throughout her life. We depend on the people who grow our coffee to do the work required to make the coffee great. That relationship is a two-way street, and we’re proud to say that we’ve made a difference to Angelica’s family, and that specialty coffee can make a difference to coffee families around the world.