This article was originally posted October 5, 1998

Sandy-haired Cuco, 2, lives on the streets of Alejuelita, a lurid, decaying area west of Costa Rica's capital, San José, where crack addicts and street gangs roam and rob. Cuco's mother peddles drugs and sex in the neighborhood, while Cuco and his five siblings are left on their own to survive.

Until six months ago, Cuco's one daily meal came from a friendly neighbor. Then a 4-year-old friend brought him to Hogar Zoe (House of Life), a Christian drug rehabilitation center that, as best it can on scarce resources, also ministers to needy children.

Reaching kids

Two years ago, Chris Dearnley, pastor of the Vineyard Church of Escazœ, near San José, asked Zoe's director, Carlos Córdoba, how Dearnley's church could support the program. Córdoba responded simply, "Help us reach the children."

Hogar Zoe serves meals to neighborhood youth every other day, so the Vineyard of Escazœ took charge of the kitchen every other Saturday and added an evangelism outreach. But soon Dearnley came to understand what Córdoba already recognized: It would take more than beans and rice to keep these children from perishing on the streets of San José. Dearnley wrestled with the problem of how to assure a steady stream of funds for Zoe so it could expand programs to have greater impact on young lives.

Dearnley, whose background includes a Harvard mba, started thinking about coffee. He recalls visiting university friends in California in July 1997: "We were sitting around discussing our financial need and situation, and I said, 'Hey, I brought you some coffee from Costa Rica.' " At that moment, he envisioned a coffee export operation, with the profits financing social outreach. "We looked at each other and said, 'Hey, why don't we do this?' "

Now Pura Vida Coffee Company supports Pura Vida Ministries, established to finance not only Hogar Zoe, but other ministries in Central America as well. The name comes from a Costa Rican colloquialism, figuratively meaning "great, terrific," but literally meaning "pure life."

"We believe this coffee is about pure life: Offering the life of Christ to people who are struggling," Dearnley says.

John Sage, Dearnley's Harvard housemate who attended that California meeting, is also a founding member of Pura Vida Coffee Company. Sage was creator of Starbucks' Red Ribbon Sampler coffee/music gift package that generates funds for AIDS research. Sage, whose brother died of the disease five years ago, says the Starbucks project should raise at least $40,000 this fall for AIDS organizations around the country.

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Pura Vida Coffee began operations in January with no advertising budget. Instead, it is relying on word of mouth to spread news of the product. Dearnley says Pura Vida's coffee supplier is supportive of its mission and has allowed the company to start with low volume and use its Miami call center. Dearnley's vision is that Christians and churches would buy Pura Vida for their in-house use or as gifts.

While interest and sales have been strong, so far the money generated by sales has been reinvested in more coffee, Dearnley says. But Sage believes that for Pura Vida Coffee, which features the world-renowned premium variety Tarrazœ, profits could approach $40,000 its first year.

Todd Hunter, national director of the Anaheim, California-based Association of Vineyard Churches-USA, lauds Dearnley's approach to ministry as "spiritual entrepreneurship." "I would encourage it if it became a trend," Hunter says.

Drug rehab

On Saturday morning at Hogar Zoe, Vineyard of Escazœ members scatter through the neighborhood to gather children for the day's program. Meanwhile, two young men enrolled in Zoe's 15-month drug rehabilitation bustle around a dark kitchen, chopping vegetables and boiling cauldrons of water for rice in preparation for the interns' lunch. Allan, 24, clad in a baggy black T-shirt and jeans, leans against a refrigerator for a few minutes to talk about himself.

Allan joined a street gang, and at 11 committed his first robbery. His mother, a drug dealer, would pay him four grams of cocaine for babysitting his two brothers. Crack was Allan's drug of choice. But when he ran out, he often drank rubbing alcohol, which could have killed him.

Eleven months ago, following a drug deal that turned violent, an old friend from the streets who had become a Christian and graduated from Hogar Zoe brought Allan to the center. Director Córdoba, a one-time addict who founded Zoe, interviews candidates and rejects the applications of those he believes are simply seeking food and shelter rather than a drug-free life. Of the 60 percent accepted, almost all graduate. The program includes intense prayer and Bible study, group worship, counseling, and learning a trade, such as carpentry, welding, or greenhouse gardening. Some 40 interns receive housing, medical attention, and three meals a day; 60 others live off-campus but also participate. Its success has prompted Costa Rican courts to send convicted addicts to Hogar Zoe as an alternative to prison.

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"Every day is a fight, but I feel at peace," Allan says. "God comes first. Nothing else interests me. I want to stay here and help others."

Allan is a portrait of what the toddler Cuco could become without intervention. Six months ago, Cuco was violent and aggressive toward others, often hitting and kicking, wholly unafraid of reprisals. "He was the angriest child I've ever seen," says Hans Wust, Vineyard's worship leader, who helps with the children's program. "[Cuco's] eyes are not a 2-year-old's eyes."

Near the food-serving area, the little boy glares at Dearnley, who begins to play a hand game with him. But within minutes, Cuco's countenance softens, then he touches Dearnley's hand and smiles. Without this program, Wust says, "I can't imagine what he could turn into."

Hostile Environment

Sometimes as many as 200 children ages 3 to 13 gather on Saturdays for lunch and fun- but-meaningful Bible-focused activities. Almost all of these children suffer from parental neglect or abuse or exposure to the hostile streets of Alejuelita. "Through our Saturday program, Cuco has learned about the love of Jesus and that some adults care enough to spend time with him," Dearnley says.

Until coffee sales begin perking up, a weedy lot adjacent to the back fence is a poignant reminder that many others could be reached. Dearnley and Córdoba imagine building a community center and gymnasium to expand the neighborhood ministry and serve more meals, as well as to extend an existing clothing-distribution program and launch "medical Saturdays" for the children. They want to establish an intern mentorship network and equip them with prime job skills; to that end Dearnley and Córdoba hope for a computer bank and an English teacher.

Hogar Zoe receives some money from Costa Rica's Evangelical Alliance and individual churches, such as the Vineyard of Escazœ. Until Pura Vida turns more of a profit, Hogar Zoe is mostly self-supporting through interns' carpentry, painting, and plumbing, Córdoba says.

"I believe they can be rescued," Córdoba says of the youngest children. "But if we had more resources, we'd be able to reach more of them."

Dearnley says that one Saturday before Easter, the children sealed in his heart the purpose of Pura Vida. "I asked the kids, 'Who is the central figure of Easter?' "

"Judas!" they shouted in unison, much to Dearnley's astonishment. But Dearnley says, "He's the one who got the money, deceived, and stole. Their lives are about Judas, and we want to make their lives about Jesus."

This article was originally posted October 5, 1998

Related Elsewhere

Also posted today is an article on fair trade.

Pura Vida's web site has information about its coffee and charity work.

Pura Vida is also featured in a CT article "The Silicon Valley Saints."

World Relief has more information about their Mission Blend coffee.

Equal Exchange has an interfaith coffee program.