Peru Paper Company | Grace Bateman Greene

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Trujillo, Peru is a city on the Northwestern coast of Peru. It has a population of almost 1,000,000 people and a median yearly income of less than $8000. There is a high rate of unemployment, but also a great deal of under-employment. A vast number of those under-employed make less than $2000 a year.

Grace Bateman Greene was just seven or eight years old when she viewed a World Vision documentary on television. She could not put the images of starving children and abject poverty out of her mind. If seven year olds can have defining moments, then this was one for Grace. She asked her parents a million questions and eventually persuaded them to sign up through World Vision’s ministry to “adopt” a hungry little girl in India. The Batemans continued to support that child with monthly contributions until she was eighteen and graduated out of the World Vision program. “Through that I think God planted some of the seeds in my heart to be interested in poverty and caring that there was poverty around the world,” she says.

In 1998, as a high school senior, Grace went to Peru on her first mission trip with Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church. She fell in love with the Peruvian people, and seemed to absorb a big picture understanding of the culture, the challenges, and the effect poverty had on every aspect of daily life. She had found her passion, and it involved Peru and investing herself in the lives of its people.

Following graduation from Jackson Prep, Grace enrolled at Mississippi College majoring in Spanish and Social Work. In between her freshman and sophomore years, she spent the entire summer in Trujillo, Peru living with a missionary couple. The daily contact with the church community allowed Grace the opportunity to polish her Spanish as well as the opportunity to form lasting friendships with individuals.

During the remainder of her college career, she returned to Peru several times, and with each trip, she came home confident that one day she would return to work fulltime as a missionary. The poverty still moved her to tears, but she could see that the church was the vehicle of progress. She could see firsthand that the love of Christ in demonstrative action was changing hearts and improving the quality of life for many.

When Grace graduated from MC in 2004, she accepted a position with Peru Mission teaching English back in Trujillo. Although teaching English paid the bills, she spent many a volunteer hour doing what she loved most – working with the Peruvian ladies in the local Presbyterian church. There were weekly fellowship gatherings where there might be a Bible study followed by either an art project or a cooking class. It was nurture as well as outreach.

The ladies, though they had received very little formal education were incredibly creative. At that point, Grace had no inkling of helping start a business. She had learned a little about economic development in poverty stricken areas back in college, but she did not see herself as a CEO or an entrepreneur. She had never considered herself to have one iota of business acumen in her DNA. “But God’s plans are always so much grander than ours!” she laughs.

Through a British missionary who was working in Trujillo that summer, Grace learned the art of making recycled paper. She thought this would be a fun craft project for the ladies. She took her own money and bought scissors, glue and supplies and suggested that they create greeting cards to sell to visiting mission teams. The first hundred cards were snapped up immediately and the ladies were extremely proud that they had made a little money. They were eager to do it again, and so they took part of their proceeds, replenished their supplies, and continued to get together from time to time and make more cards.

This accidental cottage industry Grace and her Peruvian friends had literally stumbled upon was obviously straight from the hands of God to their hands. With the money the cards generated, the ladies were able to buy necessities for their families. They were able to take care of their children while working and the sense of worth attached to creativity and purpose gave them a self confidence they had never experienced.

One of the artisans Azucena Aguirre is a mother of three whose life changed radically when the paper project began. She had relied on peddling candy by the side of the road several times a week in order to provide food for her children. The children had to accompany their mother since she had no one to watch them while she worked. She made more money in a day making cards than she could make in several weeks selling candy, and the best thing about it was that she did not have to take her children out in the streets with her.

Another of the ladies is Deisy Pretell. She has been able to replace the dirt floors in her home with new tile and to buy modern appliances for her kitchen. Now she is saving for her sons’ education. Such dreams were impossible dreams before Peru Paper!

Twenty-three-year old Grace did not know exactly what she was going to do the realization of the impact this new found skill was having on her friends’ lives, but her next step, upon returning to the United States in 2005, was to enroll in an online economic development course through Covenant College’s Chalmers Institute. That was a certificate course, and although it was helpful, when the course ended, Grace was eager to go further. The thought of more schooling did not dampen her enthusiasm for whatever God had in mind. So she headed off to Southern New Hampshire University to earn a master’s degree in International Community Economic Development. Her studies there were very practical and specific to working in impoverished areas. This was an exciting time – an adventure that God was directing and Grace was stepping into by faith. She continued to promote the cards in her spare time and to make a few trips to Peru. She always returned with a suitcase of cards and found they were easy to sell.

“I saw how well the cards were doing with very little effort,” Grace says. “I realized what the ladies most needed was market access. They had no way to sell the cards on their own. How could I not NOT do this? I just knew that whatever the capacity – this was what I wanted to do – whether the Lord would have me be in Peru long term or here connected to them, I knew it was going to happen. I knew that I was called to this and I felt gifted and passionate about it.”

In 2008 the Peru Paper Company was officially begun as an LLC. Its website began to sell online in 2009. By this time, Grace had become a seasoned expert on the ins and outs of the import business and the rules of law. There was, as you would expect, red tape here and there, but little by little Grace learned to navigate the issues as they arose. Grace can laugh over the on-the-job training she received as the CEO of an international company. There were some tense moments in the learning curve. Grace can, however, testify to the truth of the adage, “If God calls you to it, He’ll get you through it.” Well, maybe it’s more like I Thessalonians 5:24 that says, “The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”

The Peruvian ladies are independent contractors who sell their products now to Grace, who in turn sells the wares to different retail outlets. The paper is sold widely across the Southeast, but there are also some retailers in New York City, Canada, and Australia. Grace goes to markets and trade shows all over. The cards literally sell themselves as they are unique and quite beautiful. They are quite suitable for framing, too. The story behind them is always a conversation starter.

Danny Hernandez, a Presbyterian pastor’s wife in Trujillo, manages the operations in Peru. She and Grace keep in touch daily with e-mail or Skype. There is an assembly process to the cards. with 16 ladies employed at the present time. They work in groups with specific tasks. Some actually create and dye the paper, a several day process that takes patience and skill. Others design the cards and create the patterns that others follow as they cut and paste. Others do the lettering and still another matches the finished cards with envelopes and packages them in cellophane sleeves. The cards are then shipped to Grace in Mississippi.

The ties that bind Grace with her friends in Peru run very deep. Every few weeks, Danny will invite the other ladies to her home for a Skype visit with Grace. It is just that – something like a visit over the kitchen table with a dear friend and a cup of coffee. The conversation does not always get around to business. Everyone wants to catch up on each other’s life. “How are you and what’s going on?” is the first topic of conversation.

Grace with her adoring (and very supportive) husband Mason Greene

What does the future look like for the Peru Paper Company? Grace beams. “I think it will continue to grow. Each year since its beginning, we’ve had more sales than the year before. Our online store opened in the worst part of the recession, and we’ve been able to grow it. We continue to build our client base, continue to get new products and just continue to get the word out of what we are trying to do. I know word spreads because people will read about it or someone will send them one of our cards and they’ll see it and want to order some, too.”

Peru Paper does seem to travel. The company has taken some impressive custom orders in the past three years. They were included in goodie bags presented to celebrities at the Academy Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Emmy Awards!

Hearing Grace’s story and seeing the light in her eyes and the excitement in her voice – I can only imagine what that evening years ago must have been like when a little girl with a very tender and open heart saw the World Vision documentary that launched her path in life. She was indeed called to this. As she has blessed, she would be the first to proclaim that she has received so much more than she has given.

“If you had asked my mom even before I took that first trip to Peru, she would have said, ‘yes, Grace is going to be a missionary,’ and I would have loved that. I never thought I would be a missionary in this way. I never thought that being back home God would give me a way to be a missionary in Peru as well as a missionary in the United States telling the story. “

Grace is a frequent guest speaker. You can contact her through www.PeruPaper.com. And order their paper through the website or their list of retailers (that you can find on the website.) You will be very blessed when you do.