What do Anne Heche, Kyra Sedgwick, and Jimmy Fallon have in common other than Kevin Bacon? They all received (along with Kevin Bacon) greeting cards designed and made out of recycled materials by Peruvian women in their 2010 Emmy swag bags. Grace Bateman Greene, the founder of Peru Paper, and I recently connected and she agreed to share her thoughts on travel, education, and the importance of a job.
I prompted her with this question:
I’m interested in how your travels and your education have impacted the course of your life. How has travel influenced your education? How has your education influenced your travels?
Without further ado, Grace…
I’ve loved reading what Kelsey has said about TOMS shoes recently. I gave an “amen” while reading that “the problem isn’t that people don’t have shoes. It’s that they don’t have the means to buy shoes,” because after degrees in Social Work and International Community Economic Development, combined with years living in Peru, I have concluded the same thing. I’ve dedicated my life, my savings, my education, (and sometimes my sanity) to building Peru Paper Company, a business that employs impoverished women with the goal to change their lives and the communities in which they live by providing them meaningful employment, and I’m encouraged when I see I’m not alone.
People often ask how I got here and where I got the idea to do this. It started in high school on a trip to Peru with my church. I had never been out of the country before, much less a developing country. I loved it so much that I spent the entire next summer there then started college shortly after returning home. I ended up doing a double major in Social Work and Spanish, because you couldn’t major in “Helping Poor Spanish-Speaking Countries Get Out of Poverty.” Traveling to Peru made me realize that the world was bigger than my zip code and that the world had some very real and urgent needs. Social Work and Spanish were the areas that I wanted to dedicate my time to, and I probably never would have been compelled to study those subjects had I not traveled and seen some of what was going on in the world.
Fast forward to college graduation when I decided to move to Peru for a year. The organization I’d worked with before wanted me to teach English. I taught English, and I enjoyed it and made Peruvian friends, but I really loved working in the local churches and seeing what was going on in the community. Through a friend, I came across the idea of making handmade, recycled paper and greeting cards. The Peruvian ladies I knew were artistic and were always making things and selling them, so made a few dozen and promptly sold every one to a visiting group from the States. And they weren’t pity purchases- these were beautiful products that people clearly wanted to buy. The ladies were beyond excited. “Can we make more?” “Can you take them back to the States to sell them?” “This has such potential….can we start a business?” I was 23 with limited business experience and they were ready to start a paper and greeting card factory.
I knew we had something on our hands, but I was headed back to the States soon, having already accepted a job back home. However, the story of one lady in particular made me realize the immediate impact a business could have. Azucena had been selling candy on the side of a busy street corner for just pennies a day. The worst part is that her three young children were with her. She couldn’t afford childcare, and no one else in the family could help, so they sat out there with her all day long. She did whatever other odd jobs she could come across to make ends meet, but it wasn’t working well, and she and her family were barely surviving. She made cards with us that first round and did a wonderful job and made more money in a few days than she made from weeks of work selling candy on the side of the street. I knew I couldn’t turn my back on her because I’m compelled by my Christian faith to follow Jesus by caring for the poor. As John 3:17 says “if anyone has the world’s good and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” I knew it was impossible to close my heart to her, but I also knew I was returning to the States soon and that I’d need more training to proceed.
While teaching in the States, I started taking online classes in International Economic Development through the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. I was fascinated by the things I learned about the poor and their communities and how they worked and handled money. I was even more fascinated by possible solutions to poverty. I eventually quit my job to study International Community Economic Development in a graduate program that let you do research and a thesis project in a developing country. My choice was Peru, where I was able to look at the benefits of microsavings while continuing to work with Peru Paper. After another year in Peru and a graduate degree under my belt, I saw over and over that people want jobs. Microfinance is good, charity (done the right way) can be good, but ultimately, people don’t want a hand out, they don’t want free shoes, they want a job to take care of their families and their lives on their own. And I firmly believe that is what God created us to do: be productive and creative stewards of all creation and provide for our families and be generous to others and do everything in our power so others can live the same way.
Live that way and it will not only change other lives but change yours as well. Now go support businesses that change lives! (I’m sure Kelsey can tell you a few!) And, check out our website to see how meaningful and transformational a job can be.