MARLO THOMAS
01/23/2015 11:27 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Woman Made It Her Mission To Make A Dangerous Job Safer By Inventing A Unique Solution

marlo thomas"One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us—that there is always time to start a new dream. Nancy Hughes – a widow who wanted to spend her time doing something worthwhile – and ended up helping thousands of families in need."—Marlo, MarloThomas.com

The request sounded reasonable enough: “Could you please delay dinner?” The 120 doctors, nurses, and support staff assembled in the dining hall looked up, curious to hear what the young Guatemalan woman with the striking dark eyes had to say. She began to speak.

“My name is Irma, and at the age of two, I fell into an open fire and burned my hands shut,” she began, a translator changing her native Kechiquel words into English. For 16 years, she said, she hadn’t been able to gather wood or cook, leaving her with little hope of ever attracting a husband. Now one of the team’s plastic surgeons had repaired her hands, separating her fused fingers. For the first time ever, she could make tortillas. She could marry. She could start a family.
“Thank you,” she said. “You are my miracle.”

No one spoke. “We were all weeping,” says Nancy Sanford Hughes, a volunteer who was cooking dinner for the medical team. “It was so profound. She had suffered for so long.”

The most dangerous activity for a woman in that part of the developing world was cooking for her family, often with a baby strapped to her back, leaning over an open campfire in a tiny, unventilated home. She had watched mothers and children come into the clinic with chronic coughs, debilitating burns, and hernias caused by having to lug heavy bundles of wood.

Helping others had been a big part of the very full life she had led back home in Oregon. She and her husband, George, known to everyone as Duffy, had three kids—a son and two daughters. But you’d never know it from looking around their dinner table most nights. You might see an exchange student from China or Finland (Nancy has hosted more than 50 in all), a couple of neighbors, Duffy’s brother and his four kids, or maybe a few of their son’s rowing buddies, fresh from a workout in the basement, where they’d set up their team training room.

Then, in 1993, a shock: Duffy was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 51. “I’d get mad when I saw those pink ribbons and say, ‘Men get this disease, too, you know!’” Nancy says.

Over the next four years, she went to all of his oncology appointments, a thick binder in hand. “I took notes, wrote down all the medicines he was on, and reminded the doctors of what they had said before,” Nancy says. Together, they decided he should try an experimental treatment. She and their kids, who were now young adults, hung on to the 40 percent chance that it might extend his life.

But the cancer would not relent.

When he died in the spring of 2001, “it was almost a relief,” Nancy says. “As strange as that sounds, when you’ve been living with someone with a life-threatening illness for eight years, it’s true.” By the time he died, “I had already gone through a lot of mourning. It’s the gift of having advance notice, of knowing what’s coming.”

But once she took care of the obvious—things like meeting with the lawyers to settle his estate and thanking all their friends who had brought meals—reality set in: She was a widow at age 58. What would life be like without Duffy in it?

“I had to figure out what to do next,” she says. “Once I lost Duffy—and with my kids gone, too—I had to change direction.”

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PHOTO GALLERY
Nancy Hughes

That new direction came in 2002, when her son’s girlfriend told her she was headed to Playa Grande, Guatemala, with a medical team sponsored by Helps International, a nonprofit that fights poverty in Latin America. Nancy had always wanted to go on this kind of mission, but assumed she was unqualified because she was neither a doctor nor a nurse. “When I signed up, they said, ‘What can you do?’ And I answered, ‘I guess I can cook.’”

From the very first day of that first trip, Nancy’s “mom skills” kicked in. After flying into Guatemala City, then taking a 15-hour bus ride to an abandoned military base on the northern border, she and the team were famished. “So we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—for 125 people!”

“We worked from the minute we woke up until late, late at night,” Nancy says. When she had a free moment, she’d wander into the clinic where the doctors and nurses allowed her a bedside view of their work. “It was fascinating,” she says. “I just wanted to help out in any way I could.” So she came back to work the kitchen year after year.

But after her third trip, in 2004, Nancy wanted to do more than cook. “I started talking about what I had seen to whoever would listen,” she says. “Every time I mentioned Irma, I broke down.”

A year later, Nancy returned to Guatemala, this time to head up a six-person stove team.

As she and her team learned to use rivet guns and screwdrivers to assemble the heavy cement pieces, they also learned that smiles, handshakes, and hugs overcome any language barriers.

“The indigenous people are welcoming, friendly, honorable, lovely people with a wonderful sense of family,” Nancy says. “You can go into the poorest home and they will offer you something to drink.”

Since then, Nancy has launched StoveTeam International, which has helped raise nearly $1.2 million so that entrepreneurs could open eight factories in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico. Called the Ecocina, the innovative new stove produces almost no smoke, uses less than half the wood of an open fire, and reduces carbon emissions and particulate matter by more than 70 percent. Even with manufacturing and labor costs, the factories have kept the price of the stove to just $50 or $60. To date, more than 38,000 stoves have been provided to families.

“People say, ‘You have such a passion,’ but I didn’t start with a passion. I just showed up on the medical team. To find your passion, you have to show up. You have to look around and see what needs doing, and just do it.”

To find out more about Nancy's journey -- and to read 59 other inspiring stories -- buy your copy of "It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over." Click here.

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