March 11, 2010

This mason on a mission in Guatemala

— You are probably familiar with J. Patrick Manley's work.

Manley, a mason who owns Brick Stove Works in the town of Washington, built the wood-fired ovens at Fore Street, Primo, the Edge, Black Crow Bakery, Cafe Miranda and other popular Maine eateries.

But you may not know that, thanks to Manley and his cadre of Maine volunteers from the group Masons on a Mission, there are 1,500 families living in Guatemalan villages who have their own hand-built masonry cook stoves.

The stoves are more than just a charitable donation for the women who spend their days bent over open fires in poorly ventilated homes. Yes, the cook stoves that Manley builds, known as estufas, feed families, but they also save eyes and lungs.

''They look like they're crying all the time,'' Manley said of the women and children who spend their days around the open fire pits. ''Their eyes are all red and teary. Wood smoke is nothing but little droplets of hot tar and it literally burns the surfaces of the eyes. After 30 or 40 years of that, a lot of women go blind.''

And the children, Manley said, lose lung function, ''and they never get it back.''

At 6 tonight, Kerry Altiero, owner of Cafe Miranda in Rockland, will be holding a benefit for Masons on a Mission, the final event in his ''For the Kids'' series of fundraisers. For $30, guests will eat English pub food and listen to D.L. Geary talk about his English-style brews.

After dinner, Manley will speak about Masons on a Mission and answer questions about the nonprofit organization. A Mayan stone carving and blanket will be auctioned.

It's been 10 years since Manley first visited Guatemala at the invitation of a Canadian mason who was doing similar work.

''I had never exposed myself to that kind of poverty and misery,'' Manley said. ''I was fairly moved by the experience.''

Manley volunteered with the Canadian group for about five years before forming his own Maine-based mission. It started off small, but the demand for stoves kept Manley growing the organization and expanding its reach.

At one of the earlier villages he visited, there were 2,000 families cooking over open fire pits. But there was only enough time and money to build 26 stoves.

''The women in the village were begging us to come build one for them,'' Manley said.

Now Masons on a Mission never leaves a village until everyone who wants a new stove gets one. How does he know where to go? He relies heavily on working with a Guatemalan women's group and organizations that provide health care services to the locals.

''We've funded and built about 1,500 stoves,'' Manley said. ''The majority were built with money that I raised, but only a small portion were built by me or volunteers. The majority were built by masons down there who we've trained. I'm always raising money, and I wired money down when I have enough'' to build more stoves.

The stoves cost an average of $150 to build, a small investment that brings a lifetime of dividends in terms of better health for the people who use them. (In more affluent villages, families are required to pay 10 percent of the cost of the stove.)

Manley typically travels to Central America in January or February and stays for a month. He does photo verification of stoves that have been built during the year, and prepares for the 20 or so volunteers who come down to build 20 to 30 stoves over the course of a week.

Volunteers don't have to have masonry experience, and have ranged from medical professionals to Sam Hayward, chef/owner of Fore Street, who went down in 2008.

Manley interviews every volunteer to find out why they want to go and to make sure they're prepared for working in ''funky villages where water and food can be bad, and it isn't always uplifting.''

Over the past few years, Masons on a Mission has also funded a new school for children in the village of Chuisic, near Xela. It's a basic six-room school building but provides classroom space for hundreds of children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Manley is raising money for two more classrooms and a kitchen with a few estufas.

Manley's future plans for the group? Build more stoves -- as many as he can in his lifetime.

''I came to this project relatively late in life, in my late 40s,'' he said, ''and I intend to spend the rest of my life doing this.''

To learn more about Masons on a Mission, go to or to www.midcoast.com/masonsonamission.

To donate or volunteer, contact Manley by e-mailing jpmanley@midcoast.com, calling 845-2440 or writing to:

J. Patrick Manley

Masons on a Mission

15 Nelson Ridge South

Washington, ME 04574

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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