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January 4, 2017

Small Warrenton company helping Haitian villagers

Photo/Lawrence Emerson
Jeanne Allen and Edward Annuel review a display of Woven Grace cards at Latitudes Fair Trade in Warrenton during his December visit.
An example of a Woven Grace greeting card made in rural Haiti.
Under Edward Annuel’s supervision, young artists in Terrior-Rouge work on cards.
A community of about 21,000, Terrier-Rouge stands in the northeast corner of Haiti.
Every time somebody goes out and buys something that is from Haiti, they are making a difference in people’s lives.
— Jeanne Allen, Warenton resident and Woven Grace founder
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The Warrenton woman has applied the “teach a man to fish” proverb to impoverished northern Haiti villages.

And, the lead fisherman recently visited Fauquier on his first trip to the United States — a rarity for Haitians.

Thanks to Facebook posts, local residents occasionally called Edward Annuel by name as the 27-year-old walked around Warrenton last month.

To many here and in his part of Haiti, Mr. Annuel embodies the potential for progress in the Caribbean nation of 10.6 million people. He speaks four languages, studies to complete a university degree in economics and works as general manager of Woven Grace Inc., a Warrenton-based company that employs Haitian artists to make products sold in North America.

Jeanne Allen met him in 2011, when she and her husband Bob traveled to Terrier-Rouge with a Warrenton church group.

“We were building a labyrinth to reduce blood pressure among villagers, a common problem,” Mrs. Allen recalled. “Edward was one of the local guys helping to build it.”

She greeted him in broken Creole. He answered in perfect English.

“I was very surprised, and I asked how he learned English,” Mrs. Allen said. “He said to me, ‘I read books. I read a lot of books’.”

The 6-foot-3 villager reminded the visitor of her son Zach, six years younger and somewhat shy but opinionated.

“Some people call it arguing; we call it having a conversation,” she said. “So, we just hit it off.”

Mrs. Allen cried on the flight home, thinking about the poverty among the Haitian people, whom she found to be warm and happy. She wanted to help, beyond teaching teenage girls to cross-stitch, which she had done while staying at an Episcopal mission. But, her ideas all seemed too complex.

Then, the IT professional had an epiphany as she made a card to send friends. It seemed simple and small, but Mrs. Allen still faced challenges, including availability of materials, the need to teach and quality control requirements. The venture added purses and other small cloth items to its line of greeting cards, some seasonal, some timeless.

Lee Owsley, who owns the Latitudes Fair Trade shops in Warrenton and Fredericksburg with her husband Terry, offered advice and served as a mentor, Mrs. Allen said.

She needed to figure out logistics and management, which Mr. Annuel’s skillset and personality addressed.

From Terrier-Rouge, he travels to other villages around the region by motorcycle to share Mrs. Allen’s carefully constructed training manuals and materials for the products the artists — many of them orphans — produce. He collects the finished products, which Missionary Flights International brings to the U.S. without charge.

Woven Grace started in 2013.

All of the proceeds go to the artists, Mr. Annuel and the 31 shops in the U.S. and Canada that sell their wares.

Hundreds of Fauquier citizens have visited Haiti on mission and humanitarian trips over the last couple of decades. Groups from the Warrenton Baptist Church, the Warrenton Presbyterian Church and the Warrenton Rotary Club have donated labor and funds to playgrounds, orphanages, wells for clean drinking water and even a John Deere tractor to help Haitians grow more food.

Life in his part of the country has improved in recent years, Mr. Annuel said. Electricity has grown more common. Community wells make safe water available. Public toilets, which he has helped build, improve sanitation.

Mr. Annuel has an iPhone 5 and internet access, which allow him to communicate regularly with Mrs. Allen to run the business. The technology also gives him access to world news and culture, exposure common to only about one-fifth of Haiti’s citizens.

“It’s just been a dream to me to visit the United States of America and to have a place to stay,” Mr. Annuel said a couple of days after Christmas. “I have a lot of friends in North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia.”

His visit extended from Nov. 19 through Dec. 30, including a couple of weeks in Fauquier, where he stayed with Tony and Holly Tedeschi and the Allens.

“It is not easy for any Haitian to come to the U.S., for obvious reasons,” Mrs. Allen explained.

In a nation with unemployment of 70 percent or greater and a history of violent political unrest, citizens often seek to flee. Only those with reasons to return get travel visas.

Mr. Annuel checked all of the boxes, with a job, an education, a 7-year-old son, recently-purchased land for a planned home, savings and support from his employer.

The artists he supervises make $100 to $200 a month, very good earnings in Haiti. So, others want to join Woven Grace, just as Mrs. Allen hoped when she started the venture to give people opportunities to improve their circumstances.

“Every time somebody goes out and buys something that is from Haiti, they are making a difference in people’s lives,” she said.

Donations to Haiti help, but commerce has more lasting benefits, the 57-year-old Warrenton resident suggested.

As for Mr. Annuel, he hopes to build a house, marry his girlfriend, complete his university degree and, eventually, start his own building supply company.

“I need what we call someone to invest . . . if I can find a loan,” he explained.

That financing wouldn’t come from a Haitian bank, where 50 to 60 customers typically to conduct routine business, Mr. Annuel added.

“I just see somebody like Eddie as hope for Haiti,” said Stan Parkes, a financial advisor and Warrenton Rotarian who has made five trips to the country. “I would like to think he’s a dynamic force for change . . . a leader.”

On his early visits to Haiti, Mr. Parkes noticed the young man’s willingness to engage foreigners and to practice his English.

“One thing that impressed me about Eddie was that he took no English classes, but he always wanted to speak the language with groups of us.”

Despite what he knew about the county, his recent visit to the U.S. provided a bit of sensory overload, with “how busy Americans are,” his first movie, the number of vehicles and the overall affluence here.

“I know people are afraid about travel to Haiti, because of what they hear,” Mr. Annuel said. “I just want people to come and see the beauty of Haiti.”

He served as an ambassador of sorts in Warrenton, 1,363 miles from home.
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