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Cigars For Hope

Cigarmakers and their customers have a warm heart for the needy.

Chateau de la Fuente looks like a paradise. The Dominican tobacco farm is immaculate, decorated with rows of exotic flowers, gazebos with thatched roofs and elaborate mosaic floors, and scores of majestic royal palm trees, some of which poke up through the white shade that covers much of the 190 acres of planted tobacco. This is where the Fuentes grow wrapper for their Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars, and they have clearly spared no expense, making sure every last detail is perfect.

But off the farm is a different world, one of abject poverty, sadness and unfulfilled dreams.

One moment cigarmaker Carlos Fuente Jr. is showing off his freshly planted crop of Cuban-seed tobacco, the next his SUV is snaking down a rocky road flanked by meager homes. He pauses at one, which is etched with religious sayings and crosses. This is the town of Caribe.

The homes are shacks, and seem impossibly frail for this part of the world, where hurricanes are an annual threat. Walls fit at odd angles, most floors are made of dirt and the road is often the sole place for children to play. As the car comes to a halt, a group of shoeless children walk out to see the visitors.

A young boy with old eyes, his body lean and already hard from work, stares at the vehicle. "La projecta," he says, over and over.

"La projecta."

He's asking to join the project, the Cigar Family School, created by the Fuente and Newman families and financed in part by thousands of generous cigar smokers. The Cigar Family Charitable Foundation has given more than $1 million to the school, which is one part education center, one part health center, one part community gathering place. It's a rare oasis of hope in this area, a place where some must feel they have been overlooked by man and God alike.

Fuente is hardly alone. Charity is a large part of the corporate structure of many cigar companies, most of which operate in areas teeming with the world's poor. When Hurricane Georges stormed through the southern Dominican Republic in 1998, killing hundreds and ripping the roofs from homes, Consolidated Cigar Corp. (which later became the core of Altadis U.S.A.) opened its checkbook. It helped out the citizens of La Romana, home to the company's biggest cigar factory and the hardest-hit part of the country.

"When the storm hit La Romana, the company gave more than $1 million," said Janelle Rosenfeld, vice president of advertising for Altadis U.S.A., which makes Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and many other cigars. The aid came mostly in cash, but also included tarps for roofs damaged by the storm, plus food, all flown to the Dominican Republic by a plane chartered by the company.

Others also pitched in. "Employees at our home office [in Fort Lauderdale, Florida] donated clothing and food," said Rosenfeld. "And that all went down in the private charter plane."

Realizing that hurricanes such as Georges were an all-too-regular event in the areas where it makes cigars, Altadis then created a nonprofit charity for ongoing hurricane relief that it dubbed the World of Montecristo Relief Organization. Since the group's creation in 1999, Altadis has raised more than $750,000 through the organization, much of it via the annual Montecristo Cup pro-am golf tournament, in which amateur golfers are paired up with star players from golf's Champion's Tour. Cash is also raised with a charity auction.

This year, Altadis is adding store promotions with cigar retailers to bolster the monies raised by the foundation. The plans for those promotions weren't final at press time.

Money raised by Montecristo goes to various aid agencies to help the needy in and around the areas where Altadis produces cigars. The cash has helped rebuild schools in La Romana and pay for scholarships to allow the poor to attend school beyond the eighth grade, and is currently being used to build a kindergarten in Honduras. In northern Honduras, six single mothers, each with two to six children, now have new homes thanks to Altadis. The company gave money to the Lions Club, which built the homes out of cement block. The modest but sturdy structures are far better than the norm for the deprived in that part of the world.

The biggest modern disaster to strike tobacco lands occurred only one month after Hurricane Georges. While Georges was devastating, it paled in comparison to Mitch. One of the strongest hurricanes ever spawned in the Atlantic, the storm ironically did its worst damage when it weakened and then stalled, dumping three feet of rain in one hellish week over Honduras and Nicaragua and killing some 9,000 in mudslides and floods. The rains swept away homes and bridges and destroyed roads, leaving portions of the already poor countries in ruin. Among the most abjectly affected areas was Esteli, the town where most Nicaraugan cigars are made.

Padron Cigars Inc. immediately sent out a call for aid, changing its ad for the February 1999 issue of Cigar Aficionado. Instead of advertising the company's cigar, the page was stark white, with the word Help centered in black. The company also sent letters to retailers.

The readers of Cigar Aficionado, cigar shop owners and others opened their wallets for the needy of Nicaragua. "We raised $157,000," said Jorge Padron, president of the company. That kind of money goes a long way in that part of Nicaragua. The funds were given to the Catholic Church, which bought a plot of land and built 35 clean, solid homes for those left with nothing, giving them a chance to begin anew. "It was great," says Padron. "It was a big deal."

Nick Perdomo, president of Tabacalera Perdomo, which also makes cigars in Esteli, said at the time of the storm that 70 percent of his workforce lost their homes to Mitch and three died of leptospirosis, a disease caused by drinking contaminated water. He opened the factory to workers who needed shelter, provided blood tests and vaccinations to prevent the spread of disease, and sent much needed aid from the United States. "We sent down two 40-foot containers loaded with medicines, clothing and dried foods," said Perdomo. "We also made a contribution of over $50,000. The two containers were sent directly from us, and the Nicaraguan government charged us over $8,000 in taxes. It was worth it because we know it got to the people. Our whole staff, including [my wife] Janine and the kids handed out everything personally to the people. We truly learned how fortunate we are, especially my kids. We feel blessed that we were able to do this."

Sometimes cigar companies extend charity to areas that don't make cigars. When floods tore through Haiti, a country that borders the Dominican Republic, General Cigar Co. and its workers helped. General Cigar and the Connecticut tobacco grower O.J. Thrall donated medicine, food and bottled water to the Haitian victims. Employees of General Cigar Dominicana also donated a day's pay to the needy of Haiti. "I am especially pleased by the way in which our employees voluntarily decided to donate a day's wage to the relief effort, although none of us lost family or friends in the tragedy," saidModesta Fondeur, General Cigar Dominicana's senior vice president of tobacco and operations. The flood relief was one of many charities supported by General.

Grupo Leon Jimenes, the biggest company in the Dominican Republic and the parent of cigarmaker La Aurora, has long supported the Dominican community, particularly in Santiago, where most Dominican cigars are made. In 1996, the company created a park for the people of Santiago next to its factory. In 2003, the company established an ultramodern museum, brimming with artifacts from the Dominican Republic and including a history of Santiago. Over the past 10 years, Leon Jimenes has invested money in the nation's infrastructure, helping 17,000 people in 30 tobacco-producing communities in the northwest Dominican Republic. The money went for schools, solar energy for areas without electricity, and more. It's all part of the company's motto, to contribute to "the achievement of a better nation."

Endless numbers of cigars have been given away for charity. Some of Fuente's most talented cigar rollers make the company's most elaborate smokes for charity. These cigars, made with several wrappers, impossibly complex curves and artistic twists and details, which can take days to create, are never sold at retail. President Carlos Fuente Jr. uses them for auctions to raise money for Cigar Family. Each year, the Cigar Family Web site holds an online auction of these and other rare cigars to raise money for the needy.

The Eiroas, the family behind the Camacho brand, created an entire cigar brand for charity in 1999 called Esperanza Para Los Ninos, or help for the children. Christian Eiroa, vice president of the company, came up with the box-pressed cigar with a group of cigar smokers from the Internet. "We sold around 45,000 cigars on our own Web site," says Eiroa. The cigars were priced around $3 each, with half the proceeds earmarked for El Nuevo Amanecer, a school and orphanage in Honduras.

Humidors have even played a role: Davidoff of Geneva raised $10,000 for September 11 charities through the sale of humidors, including one decorated with a rendition of firemen raising the flag at the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York.

In February, a former cigar factory became a place for the most destitute homeless to find a place of refuge. A 100-year-old building in New Haven, Connecticut, where F.D. Grave cigars were once made, was transformed into Liberty Safe Haven, part of a project aimed at ending homelessness in Connecticut. Liberty Community Services is trying to raise another $750,000 to complete the project, which offers refuge to the homeless who cannot live in shelters, the type of people "that have been living under bridge embankments," said James M. Schaffer, senior development officer of the project. The stately brick building, which still carries the F.D. Grave name above the second story, is an ongoing reminder of the charity of cigarmakers.

Such charity is not always welcomed. The Fuente and Newman school was born from rejection: both companies had attempted to donate to charities in the past, but were spurned due to their being in the cigar business.

All the money raised by the Fuente and Newman efforts goes to the Cigar Family charity. The companies assume the administrative costs so that a dollar donated is a dollar given to those in need.

The towns of Caribe and the five neighboring villages were in need when the Fuentes began growing wrapper there in 1992. "When we first came here, there was no electricity, there was no water. We had no idea of the problems in the surrounding villages—we were here to grow tobacco," said Fuente, who has become immersed in the charity project along with Eric M. Newman, the president of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. The Fuentes and Newmans have a long-standing relationship: they are joint partners in Fuente & Newman Premium Cigars, which distributes both companies' handmade brands.

Not long after Fuente began making regular trips to the farm, he became aware of the level of poverty affecting the area's residents. "You realize you have a responsibility to help these children in some way."

Fuente and Newman found a kindred soul in David Luther, executive director and founder of the Institute for Integral Dominican

Development. The initial plan was to add a wing to an existing school in the area, but Luther, who has lived in the Dominican Republic for more than 50 years, persuaded Fuente and Newman to do something more: to create their own school, with amenities such as a health center and recreation center.

"The school is not just teaching the kids how to read and write," says Luther. "It's teaching them to get along together. Byproducts we didn't expect are happening." Unbeknownst to the organizers, people from neighboring towns had an inbred hatred of one another. Early rides on the bus resulted in fights. Now they work together. (One tiny girl, obviously a future politician, forged an alliance with a larger, older girl from another town during school elections and bartered a power share. She is now president of the class.)

The infectious smiles of the children warm the hearts of visitors, especially those who have children of their own. They greet visitors in the English they have recently learned, and laugh just like children from any other part of the world. Fuente warmly greets the children, who call him Carlito. Newman is particularly popular, standing surrounded by happy kids as he hands out photos from earlier visits. Fuente's brother-in-law, Wayne Suarez, a big, tough man, is equally moved by the little ones.

The school opened in September. On a visit by Cigar Aficionado editors in February, electricity was about to be installed, which would power the computers. The future will bring a baseball field and basketball court, but the most pressing matter is an expansion to handle more children, especially those past grade eight. Graduates now have nowhere to go.

On opening day, the students were given new uniforms and new shoes, and took part in a grand opening ceremony. The children were asked to march at the ceremony, but resisted at first. Many explained it was the first time they had a pair of new shoes, and they didn't want to harm them.

After the Cigar Family school is over one day, a yellow bus provided by the charity stops, and happy children run out, the sun nearly dipping beneath the mountains on the horizon. The children smile and laugh, heading toward their homes.

They are the lucky ones. For now, the school is full. For the little boy in his village with the old eyes, hope will have to wait at least one more year.

Source: Cigar Aficionado