When Hurricane Mitch wreaked havoc in the Central American country of Guatemala in 1998—taking millions of acres of rich farmland, homes and schools, and more than 30,000lives—Dan Strobell, a St. George resident, knelt and prayed.
“Heavenly Father, what are you going to do to help this stunningly beautiful and stunningly poor country at this difficult time,” he pleaded. The answer from above? “I’m going to send you down there to help!”
Though not quite the answer he was expecting, he made a few preliminary contacts through his church. Based on resulting discussions, he recognized he had the skills and the necessary crew within his own family to construct a modest house and a small school in one of 22 devastated villages.
Dan shared the idea with his five sons, and together they drove nearly 2,100 difficult miles to the Guatemalan village. For the next eight years, as schedules permitted, some or all the family returned each year. With every trip, Dan researched the needs of those they were there to help.
In the second year, they discovered many village children were not attending the school they built the year before. Why? The routine task of preparing daily meals in the homes of many of the country’s 6.5 million indigenous people often requires children to gather firewood or carry water from great distances, leaving no time for school. Aside from losing out on an education, these children and their families are also at serious risk for life-threatening burns or lung damage from regularly breathing in harmful particulates from unvented open fires inside their houses.
Enter the Rotary Club. Between 2006 and 2007, Dan served as president of St. George Rotary Club, an international service club, and one of five such clubs in Washington County, 46 in Utah and more than 36,000 in 220 countries addressing needs in local communities and the world.
From the podium he suggested his cinderblock stove project as a way for club members to help people in one of the poorest countries in the world, centering efforts on four of Rotary International’s seven areas of focus, including maternal and child health, literacy and education, fighting disease, and protecting the environment.
For the past 25 years, except during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 200 Rotarians and friends of Rotary, including children and grandchildren of Rotarians, have made the more than 4,000-mile roundtrip to Guatemala. To date, St. George Rotary has built or funded 3,137 stoves costing about $200 each.
What’s more, the club has recruited dentists to remove decayed teeth by the thousands and medical specialists to treat the most common health complaints among villagers. Such complaints include chronic headaches, burning eyes and difficulty breathing from constant exposure to smoke. They have also treated those suffering from arthritis and stomach problems, as well as chronically ill children. Rotarians have also donated school supplies, eyeglasses, shoes, knit caps, toys, and prenatal and multi-vitamins, and have taught local midwives resuscitation techniques to save the lives of unresponsive newborns.
Each year, Rotarians from St. George, Cedar City and other communities in and around the Beehive State return to the village they served the previous year, where they find women overjoyed with improved health for themselves and their children and the blessing of a vented stove, which requires only a few twigs a day and allows children to be back in their classrooms.
Although these women do not know anything about Utah or Rotary, they are convinced these gringos—strangers from another part of the world—have been sent by God.
Dan also teaches Ancient Maya History through Utah Tech’s Community Education program, and he is pretty sure these women are right!