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Baskets send Bolivians to school

An unlikely bond between a small congregation in Washington's Puget Sound area with a group of indigenous people in Bolivia.
By Sonja L. Cohen
January/February 2005 1.1.05

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Baskets to Books has formed an unlikely bond between the members of a small island congregation in Washington's Puget Sound area with a group of indigenous people in Bolivia.

When Toyan Copeland, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island, joined the Peace Corps, she was chosen for her business skills to help a group of Guarani women market handwoven baskets.

The Guarani weave beautiful baskets out of palm fronds and cornhusks but have little means to market them outside their remote area. The Peace Corps group Copeland joined was buying the baskets but had no well-established distribution process for the baskets. With a warehouse full of unsold baskets threatening the viability of their project, a frustrated Copeland e-mailed her friend and fellow UUCWI member Bill Graves, describing her difficulties. Graves persuaded the congregation's social action committee to import a shipment of baskets to see if they could be sold in the United States.

"We took one shipment, and it sold like hotcakes!" Graves said. Successive shipments have been sold through other area congregations, which take the inventory for a month and sell it within the church, allowing the baskets to reach a broader market. "We now have more demand than we can get a supply," Graves said.

The Peace Corps group pays the basket weavers directly and then sells the baskets to the church, which then sells them in the United States. "Our support has given these women a reason to become a voice in their communities—to expect recognition as income-producers and to participate in their male-dominated communal meetings as such," Copeland said in a talk she gave at her congregation.

The Guarani people have had little or no access to formal education. Working with a group of Roman Catholic nuns, the congregation established Baskets to Books, a scholarship fund for the Guarani that receives 100 percent of the net sales proceeds for baskets sold in the United States. Six shipments and more than $ 4,500 in net profits later, the fund is supporting the first two students from these villages. Both are pursuing two-year teaching certificates and will return to their villages as bilingual (Spanish and Guarani) teachers. More scholarships will be awarded this fall.

For more information contact Bill Graves at wcgraves@whidbey.com, or visit www.whidbey.com/uucwi.

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