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When I finished high school, I became involved in a movement called Catholic Action. Our job was to get aid to the needy, but at that time any person involved in humanitarian aid was accused of being a communist so I was hunted by the death squads.
My mother gave me money to illegally travel to Los Angeles, California. I found work there for several years until I was discovered and deported back to El Salvador. On my return I found that many of my friends had disappeared and I was still in danger.
I was home only 3 months and then went to Montreal, Canada where I worked until 1980.
In 1980 I returned to El Salvador and was married in 1981. I have three children, the eldest is a dentist, the second lives in North Carolina and the third wants to go to college in the United States to study architecture.
One day I met Larry Winiarski, a stove designer who was experimenting with fuel-efficient wood burning cookstoves in Central America.
One day Larry told me, “Gustavo, Nancy Hughes wants me to help with a small pilot project, so I’ll stay a few days at your home to see what we can do.” Larry began to purchase materials and with the tools that he had brought from the United States, we made a short list of materials and started working on the development of the first Ecocina.
Our workshop was only three and a half meters long and two meters wide. After three days Larry asked me to hire one more person to help us, and we hired Salvador, who has been with us ever since. Larry, working slowly but surely, started to make some drawings and a few mathematical equations and built the Ecocina.
Whenever we needed some money, there was Nancy as a guardian angel protecting us and giving us strength to continue with the design. After almost three weeks the Ecocina first saw the light and has since evolved from a stove with a metal body to one of ferro-cement.
Nancy was so excited by the project that in November 2007 she decided to come to El Salvador and meet me personally. From that time Nancy has been, with all of the members of Stove Team International, the pillar that has sustained the dream of continuing to help all of the families using fuel-wood for cooking.
We stopped producing the metal stove because the cost of metal was not stable. Don Steely and I began designing the mold for Ecocina that we are currently producing. Nancy and a group of volunteers gave us the biggest boost in February 2008 by helping build a roof, a wall of more than 25 meters long and 3 meters high.
Don worked for months looking for the best way to produce the Ecocina on a larger scale, and after several months of trial and error, I managed something even Don thought could not be achieved. With the help and ideas from different sources, and especially from Don, we managed to design a uniform mold with which we can make a very strong single-piece stove.
I have helped with building the factories in Guatemala and Honduras. With the help of Rotary matching grants and Rotary Clubs in different locations, we’ve been able to provide direct support as well as training at our factory in El Salvador
Creating jobs and become self-sustaining has been a priority since the start of STI. For example, I have a boy who cannot read or write. As a boy he had lost an eye. Guadeloupe can barely read, and if StoveTeam International had not brought help to set up this factory these people would be unemployed. Their lack of education does not allow them to get decent and dignified work, and here we are all very grateful because it has changed the lives of all of us.
Before Nancy and StoveTeam International, I had no hope that my son would be a better professional. More than this, Nancy and her volunteer friends have helped my son and my family with medical equipment and so he can work on his own. You can see how life has changed us, and we are all eternally grateful.