For award winners, coffee connects struggling populations

ROCHESTER — Nancy Sawyer-Molina remembers yearning to visit Peru after seeing a picture of the sacred Incan site Machu Pichu during her elementary school years in Pittsburgh.

In 1989, she fulfilled that dream by hiking the Inca Trail. Two years later, Sawyer-Molina sold her house in Rochester in 1991 and moved to Peru for a year. Little did she know that this "spiritual journey," as she called it, would change the course of her life.

First, she met her husband, José, while living there. It was love at first sight, and the couple soon was married. She also met a cousin of José’s best friend, who taught her about fair trade and the coffee cooperatives being operated at that time, Sawyer-Molina explained.

"Prior to that, I thought coffee came in a cup, just like everyone else," she joked.

The Molinas, who will celebrate their 20th anniversary next year, were honored last month with the White Dove award from the Rochester Committee on Latin America (ROCLA) for contributions to their communities here and in Peru, said Marilyn Anderson, a member of the organization’s steering committee. Coffee Connection, the shop the couple runs in the city’s South Wedge neighborhood, employs women in substance abuse recovery and sells fair-trade coffee harvested by Peruvian farmers. Sawyer-Molina also chairs the non-profit organization that sponsors the shop, Ausengate Creations. Ausengate means "spirit" in Quechua, a native language of the Andes.

"When we speak about fair trade, one of the things I believe is so important is (to offer) a tangible way for people to connect with other people," Anderson said, noting that Sawyer-Molina and Molina play major roles in that movement.

"You’re connecting through drinking the coffee. … We talk about how sympathetic people in the United States are, but we always need reminders how unequal the world is. We really do have responsibility to support movements like that and to support the more equitable distribution of wealth throughout world," Anderson added.

Molina said he was especially touched to receive the award on the same night that his late friend, longtime immigration rights activist Roberto Resto, was honored posthumously. Having the award announced during Mass at St. Michael Church was also memorable, he added.

"This is the fruits I harvest because I married her," Molina said with a smile toward his wife during a March 29 interview at the shop.

The couple moved to Rochester in 1992 and intended to return to Peru in a year. But instead, Sawyer-Molina went back to school for drug and alcohol counseling, earning her bachelor’s degree from Empire State College. Molina applied for a job at the post office, but when that fell through he quickly enrolled at Monroe Community College and began studies in human services, which is useful in the work the couple does now at the shop.

"First, it was my disappointment and then ‘mi esperanza (my hope),’ " added Molina, who alternates between English and Spanish in conversation, and now helps with deliveries and transportation for the women employed at the shop. He also holds down jobs at the Mental Health Association and the Jewish Community Center

Meanwhile, Sawyer-Molina’s dream of opening a coffee shop, which she had brought back from Peru, continued to percolate. In her counseling work with women in recovery, she also began to notice a void in transitional employment that was needed to give her clients the skills needed for permanent jobs.

"They needed hard skills training like how to operate a cash register," she remarked. "But they needed life skills as well (about) how to communicate with co-workers and resolve conflicts with co-workers."

Almost overnight, she realized she could blend her two worlds, and the result was Women’s Coffee Connection, as the coffee shop originally was known. In addition to working two jobs, Sawyer-Molina and Molina also ran a bingo game for three years to save enough money to open the shop.

"And the rest is history, but it was a lot of work," said Sawyer-Molina.

When the shop moved five years ago to its current location at 681 South Ave. — just up the street from the former shop — it became Coffee Connection. Sawyer-Molina said she wished she could say the name was changed to make the shop more inclusive, but truthfully, she just couldn’t fit the original name on the new store’s sign.

The shop is a charming place with its brightly colored walls and atmosphere, Anderson noted.

Sawyer-Molina said she was initially shocked that she and her husband were receiving the White Dove award because operating the shop is just something that they do. But she said she is especially proud of the 83 women who have worked at the shop since it opened in 2001, nothing that most of them have turned their lives around. Many of them have have gone on to graduate from college, she added. Several have become teachers, and one woman even traveled to Vietnam to teach English.

Sawyer-Molina said another success has been reducing the shop’s reliance on grant funding from national and community organizations — including the Rochester Women’s Giving Circle and ZONTA International, as well as area churches — from 70 percent to just 5 percent. And, with the operating surplus the shop is generating, she said she and her husband hope to found a recovery program in Peru.

Ginny Williams, a member of the board of directors for Ausengate Creations, said that Coffee Connection’s success is a testament to her longtime friend’s determination and the good dynamic Sawyer-Molina and Molina have.

"It’s nice to see (the women workers) blossom under their care," Williams added. "(The shop) is a comforting place for them."

Williams and Sawyer-Molina women have known each other since attending business school together. Sawyer-Molina first moved to Rochester when she got a job with the Eastman Kodak Co. in the late 1960s and later sold real estate.

Williams said few organizations in Rochester are simultaneously able to help people both in Rochester and in another country, as Coffee Connection does, and she was delighted that Sawyer-Molina and Molina were being recognized for their hard work through the White Dove Award.

"It’s difficult to make a difference in this world," Williams said. "When I see the difference (this shop) makes in women’s lives. … It does my heart good."

Wmen employed at the shop are referred to Coffee Connection from such agencies such as Huther-Doyle and the Monroe County Department of Social Services, Sawyer-Molina said, noting that the majority of referrals come from Catholic Family Center, which also operates a work-experience program for women called Healthy Sisters’ Soup & Bean Works.

Both of the Molinas have undergone the pain of recovery themselves, so they understand how difficult recovery is for the women they employ, said Sawyer-Molina. Yet her husband acknowledged that she has greater compassion than he does when the women relapse.

"It’s a disease," said Sawyer-Molina. "It’s not true to say I don’t feel frustrated (when the women relapse). But I get frustrated at the disease."

Linda Gartland of Rochester has personally gone through that struggle, having worked at the shop on and off for the past six years. She said this time she is committed to her recovery from substance abuse, but knows that without the Molinas, she would be on the wrong track. She added that she sees Sawyer-Molina as a mother figure.

"I can tell her anything in the world and I know she won’t judge me," Gartland noted. "She’s a sweet, beautiful lady and José too. … When I walk through those doors, I feel peace and calmness."

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