Once a year, Darién Lauten travels to Panama to visit the place where she grew up. Named after the Panamanian province of Darién, the retired college professor and member of Community Church of Durham (Mass.) UCC visits childhood friends for anywhere from a week to a month. But one of the main reasons for her visits is to purchase local items, like "exquisite" handmade baskets and mola, or reverse appliqué, to bring back to the United States and sell at her church's annual Fair Trade Products Sale. She sells the items for what she paid for them and uses the proceeds to purchase more items for the following year.
"I wanted to think of a way I could help the people of the Darién," she said. "By purchasing these items directly from the artisans, I am helping individual people within the community help themselves."
This year marks the church's fifth Fair Trade Products Sale, taking place Oct. 20-21. Along with Darién's contributions from Panama, the event will feature products from nine other organizations that support developing communities by selling locally made goods at a fair price. Bead for Life is an organization that sells jewelry made from handcrafted paper beads by artisans in Uganda, with the money going toward things like community development projects, vocational training and affordable housing. Mayan Hands sells hand-woven products made by women in nine Guatemalan communities to provide them steady incomes to raise their families. The other organizations include Rubia, RAIN for the Sahara, Deaf Blind Project, Equal Exchange, Si Panama, Seven Sisters, and HopeCraft.
"The goal of the event is primarily to help artisans in impoverished countries and to provide them a way to make a living and support their own families," said Darién, who has chaired the event for the past four years. "Some of the money from the products sold is also used to build schools and do other things for people in the community."
The event grows annually, mainly through word of mouth, and draws more than 500 people from the church and the community each year. In addition to supporting impoverished artists, Darién and the church's mission board also want the event to offer an educational experience. To ensure this, each vendor usually has some experience with the country and the people who make the items. Like Darién, many of them travel to the countries and bring the items back themselves, and can then share photos and stories of the people and places that produce the one-of-a-kind works of art.
"The fair allows people to purchase something beautiful and lovely from other parts of the world, but also learn about what is going on there in the world," said the Rev. Mary Westfall, minister at Community Church of Durham UCC. "Even after the sale, they have these items, but also go away with a new awareness of different issues."
Darién clarifies that the purpose of the fair is not to sell the items at dirt-cheap prices, but at prices that allow the artisans to earn a livable wage. She believes the fair will continue to grow because people get a unique item that they can feel good about buying.
"People feel like they are doing good when they buy these objects," she said. "And these are items that you just don't find anywhere else."