I’m often inspired by the idealism of the young. Well, Nancy Hughes, the founder of StoveTeam International, is 73, and, at an age when most people take it easy, the work she’s doing is inspirational.
Hughes is the founder and unpaid leader of StoveTeam, a role she fell into after her husband died in 2001. She’d never worked outside the home, but enjoyed travel and decided to volunteer with a medical team in Guatemala, working in the kitchen of a temporary health clinic. There, she met an 18-year-old woman named Irma whose hands had been burned shut at the age of two when she fell into an open fire, where her mother had been cooking dinner. As Hughes tells it, Irma tearfully thanked the volunteers at the clinic for the surgery that gave her the use of her hands after being disabled for most of her life.
“I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard–that people were cooking over a campfire in a room the size of a US bathroom,” Hughes told me. Working with the local Rotary Club, she organized a group of volunteers from Eugene, Oregon, where she lives, to install cookstoves in rural Guatemala. “We installed 129 stoves, my friends and me,” she said. “I thought we were pretty cool. Then I found out that the need in Guatemala was for six million stoves.”
She thought about giving up. Instead, she started StoveTeam–with the help of a $10,000 check that arrived in the mail from the guitarist Carlos Santana, who she’d never met, or even asked for money. This was 2007. Since then, her small nonprofit, which this year has a budget of just about $200,000, has sponsored the construction of seven cookstove factories that together have sold more than 56,000 stoves, improving the lives of more than 422,000 people in Mexico and Central America.
How, I wondered, had Hughes done it? She told me her story when we met recently at Opportunity Collaboration, a conference in Cancun, Mexico, that addresses issues of global poverty.* Continue reading