JR Pagliarini and his longtime friend, Ana Morgan, were commiserating over the state of things. I like to imagine this happened over a cup of coffee, but I’m told it did not.
Their 20-year friendship began the day Ana, after visiting the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, decided to walk across the street to then-Mayor Lincoln Chafee’s office to volunteer for his state Senate campaign, where she met JR.
Today JR, after a long and successful public service career, is president of Graphene Composites, and president of the Board of Directors of the ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) Association Rhode Island Chapter, now in its 30th year. Ana, from her El Salvador coffee farm roots to English and Spanish language programs entrepreneur, is a coffee broker with Rhode Island ties.
Ah, the perks of networking!
An idea was percolating.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful…” she began describing her plan to JR, to combine forces to benefit both the ALS Association Rhode Island Chapter and the El Salvadorian coffee farmers who supply beans for Rhode Island’s own Mills Coffee.
“A venerable Rhode Island company assisting a Rhode Island nonprofit; it’s a veritable win-win situation!” said JR. Rather than thinking outside the box, it is instead “thinking outside the bag,” JR quips. It sounds like a perfect blend.
“We don’t have to educate anyone here about coffee!” says Ana with a smile, in a state where the official state drink is coffee milk.
Ana remembers her first cup of coffee when she was about 14, but her love of coffee began even earlier, on her relatives’ coffee farm, “Santana,” in El Salvador, in the form of “cherries,” the bright red berries containing coffee seeds, or “beans.” As a child she remembers visiting the farm and plucking the berries to eat. Her father was a diplomat when she was in grammar school. “I loved being exposed to so many cultures.” She became interested in her foreign friends from France, Germany, and United States.
“They shaped me, made me who I was.” Ana married a Warwick man working for the Peace Corps in El Salvador.
The coffee connection was brewing.
Like Ana, Susan Mills remembers her first cup of coffee – albeit with lots of milk – at age five. “I wanted to be a part of things!”
She is the great-granddaughter of Thomas H. Mills, the immigrant Englishman who founded Mills Coffee Roasting Company in Providence in 1860, when the coffee was delivered by horse. As a child, when she was not in school, Susan was helping at the family coffee business, dragging the heavy burlap bags of beans out of the trucks. “Coffee gets in your blood!”
As a child it was the one job she didn’t want, but when her father died unexpectedly at 55, she was 24 and her brother David was 19. She reflected on her father’s words: “Just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”
“We can’t just let this go! This was my father’s – and grandfather’s – whole life.”
Susan, now vice president of Mills Coffee, relies on coffee growers in Indonesia, Africa, and Central America. She has an affinity for El Salvador, a small country – the Rhode Island of Central America – with its rich, volcanic soil, and shade-grown coffee beans. “Over the years we have had direct trade relationships, and actually help sustain the growth. Ana was probably really the first of the El Salvador brokers. I couldn’t get a call from El Salvador before I met Ana and the whole contingent.”
Susan reminisces over the scent of the berries and the flowers like white lace, on the El Salvador coffee farm. “To visit, you see all the work that they do, and you know what actually goes into it and how environmentally conscious they are, because they’re extremely protective of their land that way. They may be third world countries but honestly, everything they do is aimed at sustainability. It’s incredible. One of the nicest things was when Ana brought these people to the coffee summit.”
Ana smiles at the recollection of the coffee summit 15 years ago. “I visited Rhode Island roasters and I met Susan Mills, whose father introduced her to El Salvadoran coffee, his favorite.” Ana’s coffee summit in Providence was providential.
Susan recalls the summit. “When I was talking, I happened to mention how much my father liked the coffee. And honestly, if he could have seen the smiles, it still makes me want to cry. And I think about it because a lot of people didn’t value certain coffees.”
Susan continues, “It’s just the little things we can do as a company, and work directly with growers. It really helps build a bridge of sustainability from grower to roaster. I know the guy that runs the place, I know the owner, and I know the people that work on the site. It’s really just a nice feeling.”
Ana compares the coffee farmers to workers in the vineyard. “The tradition is like wine. It requires a lot of care. The seed – it’s incredible what it goes through. Go look at a farm. It’s a beautiful tradition.”
Helping ALS patients and their families
ALS, a progressive neurological disease, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, cruelly robs its sufferers of the use of voluntary muscles, speech, and even the ability to breathe. “It is an incurable disease at this point,” JR says as a reminder. The ALS Society provides monthly support groups, medical transportation, respite program, equipment loans and other services to ALS patients and their families. The cost of caring for a person with ALS is about $200,000 during their lifetime. JR reports that currently “the ALS Society of RI is $53,000 in the hole.”
Beth Flanagan, executive director of the ALS Society RI Chapter, speaks of the financial challenge that ALS patients and their families face. “Outside of what health insurance costs, because most insurance companies don’t cover the vast array of services that patients need. We provide our services free to our patients.”
She provides the example, “We’ve been able to provide technology to our patients, like iPads, so they can access our support group so they can stay connected. They can participate in the clinic visits that we have via telehealth.”
“Patients’ spouses and their children have joined the board to carry on the memory and legacy of their loved ones,” but as JR explains, “During the pandemic there are no in-person fundraisers,” making Ana’s plan ingenious.
Ana worked in international commerce for over 25 years. “The former president of El Salvador, Carlos Quintanilla Schmidt, asked me, ‘Why don’t you help us with coffee?’” thereby making Ana a coffee ambassador, a role she prides herself in today. “My goal is that everyone is content, everyone is taken care of.” This means the coffee farmers, the buyers, and the consumers. Coffee brings people together.
From now until Dec. 31 – Ana encourages considering the upcoming colder weather – make a $50 donation to the ALS Society RI Chapter and receive two 12-ounce bags of El Salvador “Finca San Jose” coffee, whole bean or ground, from the Mills Coffee’s website, TheQueenBean.com. Shipping is $6.70, or customers may pick up their orders at Mills Coffee’s roasting plant in a contact-free zone located in the visitor entrance.
“This lovely, balanced, full-city roasted coffee has bright acidity and delicate notes of soft citrus, chocolate, and spice,” according to the company website.
Beth is enthusiastic about the partnership. “The opportunity definitely came at the best time for the association because the message throughout this whole pandemic has been, ‘We’re in this together,’ and what better way to show that, than having a Rhode Island company and Rhode Island nonprofit join together to support each other, which is just the embodiment of the message that we’re trying to send. In Rhode Island we’ve got this great sense of community; we’re tight-knit. And I think it’s amazing that were able to show the ALS patients and their families this.”
JR agrees. “It’s amazing how deep the campaign goes when you think that we are trying to help assist patients and by doing so, we’re helping on the ground, the whole supply chain. Keeping people active and working during this global pandemic is what it’s all about.”
The ALS Society receives all proceeds from the sales. The money will go a long way assisting Rhode Islanders suffering from ALS, and their families who love them, “Giving hope to ALS patients one bag of coffee at a time.”