When Joseph Zoleta and his fellow paramedic partners began their humanitarian and disaster relief nonprofit, Black 6 Project, they didn’t know it would lead them to coffee trading.
“I realized that our humanitarian work has embedded me in the coffee world,” said Zoleta, who’s worked as a paramedic supervisor in Queens since 2016. “They go hand in hand.”
Black 6 Project is made up of veterans and volunteers who travel across the globe to serve remote villages with medical and food needs. They’ve conducted numerous humanitarian missions in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guatemala and Colombia, since they began the nonprofit in 2017. Just a year ago, though, they began working with coffee farmers in those villages to trade their goods and roast their coffee right in Long Island City.
Zoleta and his network of paramedics, some of which happen to be military veterans like him, created the Black 6 Project out of a passion to help others.
The 39-year-old decided to pay homage to his Marine Corps platoon, the Black 6, when naming the nonprofit. After witnessing the collapse of the Twin Towers from his window on Sept. 11, 2001 — a moment he considers life-changing for many reasons including the fact that he interned at the World Trade Center — Zoleta joined the Marine Corps.
He experienced two combat tours in Iraq with the Black 6, and although his unit was known for its strength, he remembers some bad losses as well.
“They’re the ones who fought with me, in the good times and bad times,” Zoleta said. “So I figured what better name to give [my organization] than what we called ourselves on the radio?”
Now, Black 6 Project conducts missions almost every month. In November, they fed more than 300 indigenous people in the Philippines and are currently organizing another mission to the Bahamas to provide hurricane disaster relief.
But it was in October of 2017 when Zoleta was inspired to start Black 6 Coffee Trading.
At the time, he took a small team with him to help with search and rescue after a typhoon caused a landslide in Kibungan, Philippines. During the trip, they stayed near a coffee farm — which he thought was amazing because he didn’t know people grew coffee in the Philippines. He also thought it was a great coincidence considering he was learning how to roast coffee back home in Floral Park.
Zoleta was determined to take some of the green coffee to New York City, so he used his backpack, made by the veteran-owned organization Backpacks for Life, to carry the 40 pounds of beans up and down the mountains.
“A few muscle aches later, I got it back to New York City, and started roasting,” Zoleta said. “It was just amazing coffee.”
He emphasizes the trading aspect of their company so that customers know they source the coffee themselves and use the proceeds to fund the missions they conduct in those communities.
For instance, part of the proceeds from their $18 Café Tío Conejo X Black 6 Coffee blend — which is their first collaboration with Café Tío Conejo who is based in Manizales, Colombia — will go into building a school right on their coffee farm.
“As a charity, I had so much trouble funding the missions, but when I realized we could just use capitalism to fund our missions, I did,” Zoleta said. “Capitalism has a bad stigma but when you flip it to create humanitarian work, it makes me feel better about what I’m doing.”
Born in the Philippines and raised in Hollis, Queens, Zoleta believes that part of the beauty of being from the “World’s Borough” is that he has a vast network of people he counts on to help him understand the distinct needs of the countries they provide humanitarian aid to.
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We were honored to serve our coffee to an influential group of veterans, veteran entrepreneurs, and leaders of their industries. It was an even greater honor to be awarded the Bunker Labs award for Global Impact. . We are beyond words on what it feels to be awarded such a great honor. Coffee is just a vessel in which we deliver our message, our mission, and the stories of the communities we serve. . We’re coming up on our one year anniversary. We hope you continue to join us every day for a cup of coffee where we remain “Mission Driven. Coffee Fueled”#Repost @black6project with @get_repost ・・・ At this year’s @thebunkerlabs gala in New York City, we were honored to receive the award for Global Impact. As one of the latest graduates of their New York Cohort, we’ve had the guidance and the resources needed to further grow our organization and use our military experiences and skills to lead volunteers into communities that require aid. Thank you Bunker Labs and thank you to our team of volunteers for the hard work in bringing our mission all over the world.
“When I was dreaming of creating this organization, it really made me realize that Queens was a prime location for it, because we all understood and have heard the inefficiencies of government sometimes,” he said.
And more often than not, their team members are either from or are connected in some way to the countries they help, like his best friend and former Navy corpsman David Guzman, who’s from Puerto Rico.
“As an outsider, you go there and you go, ‘Oh, this is what they need,’ but sometimes they don’t even know how to use those products. Those cultures have also survived multiple disasters, so they kind of understand how to bounce back; our role is just to give them an extra hand if they need it,” Zoleta said.
The Black 6 Project has plans to expand into a coffee truck in order to take the coffee wherever it’s wanted in New York City and convert it into a disaster relief truck whenever there’s a natural disaster right in the U.S. But Zoleta strongly believes that there are places outside of the U.S. that deserve their help, too.
“There’s suffering that happens daily in countries outside the U.S. … despite any natural disasters happening, there are communities out there that need it,” Zoleta said.
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The kids are always so welcoming especially with the smiles on their faces. Donations collected were brought to local school children who can’t afford school supplies. Lightly used toys were also given and the children appreciated the gifts that travelled along with us. . #black6project #black6coffee #donate #toysforkids #guatemala #service #humanitarianaid #paramedic #volunteer #veteranled #nycnonprofit #children #poverty #coffeefarmer #centralamerica #travel
He recounted a recent food drive they organized for an Indigenous tribe in the Philippines.
“I was so worried about what we’d feed them and if they’d like it, ‘Should we put cilantro in it, would they like cilantro?’” he said. “But they were starving … This whole village lined up just to eat whatever was there. Some kids didn’t have shoes, there were kids that were completely naked, and they had only one water spout that wasn’t there two years ago.”
With the support of organizations like WeWork and Bunker Labs’ Veterans in Residence program and NYU’s Veterans Future Lab, Zoleta is able to keep the Black 6 Project alive.
As a husband and father of a 4-year-old boy, he’s reminded everyday why his work is meaningful. Zoleta said he likes to take his son to missions he feels are safe, so that he sees “how good he has it growing up in New York, the biggest city in the world.”
“When Christmas comes, he’s always like, ‘Can we bring this to donate?’ and I’m like, ‘How do you know the word donate already?’” Zoleta laughed. “And times when it’s quiet, he always goes, ‘Dad, what’s your mission?’ because he wants me to say it over and over, because he loves it. Hopefully, he gets to continue the work.”