Picture of women carrying wood

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For her dedication, Port will receive the Unsung Hero award today at the annual conference in Minneapolis of WomenVenture, a Minnesota nonprofit agency that promotes economic success for women.
Port is director of education and outreach at SOS; her husband, Michael, is executive director.
She talked recently about how her belief in this work, her faith in God and her strong marriage led to her decision to walk away from a secure paycheck 11 years ago.

She talked recently about how her belief in this work, her faith in God and her strong marriage led to her decision to walk away from a secure paycheck 11 years ago.

Q How did you get started with SOS?

A My husband and I had cared for our aging parents and had enjoyed working together at their care. Then in 1988, visiting his family, Mike read and article about two microbiologists traveling to Guatemala to teach women how they could cook entire meals in a cardboard box—a solar oven.

The article captured Mike’s imagination. Most of his work has been in community organization. He saw the impact as good for the environment but also good for families and especially women. I was intrigued, too.

We enjoyed some solar cooking on April 15, 1989. Then we built our own cardboard solar oven. We started volunteering at environmental fairs. Personal vacations took us to several developing countries, and we heard stories of the challenges people face for such simple basics as cooking foods. We quickly realized cardboard does not meet the criteria for durability, weatherability, cost or aesthetics.

The passion kept growing within us.
Michael started at SOS in December 1991. I started in 1993

Q How is the project going?

A Over the last 10 years, we hae tgraeled to developing countries including Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Algeria and Ethiopia. In many, half of the family’s income goes to fuel to cook their food. The other 50 percent goes for housing, food, education, medicine, clothing, etc.

There are hundreds of designs of solar cookers that will work, but it gets complicated when you look for materials that are heat-tolerant, that will last and perform well, that are lightweight and not too expensive.

In the last six years, we have grown to be able to mass-produce the ovens through injection moldings. Our oven is the result of many people’s contributions of knowledge, skill, talent, time and finances.

All the materials are collected here and shipped for assembly. So far, our largest shipment is 400 ovens that went to Afghanistan. We estimate we can ship all the parts for around $60 per oven. In Afghanistan they sold for $15. So the rest was subsidized by some churches in Minnesota. Our retail price in the U.S. is $98.97.

Q What were you thinking, walking away from a secure career?

A I perceived it as a tremendous risk. I was 46, working as a group insurance writer. When I left, my salary was cut by 60 percent. Mike took a 50 percent pay cut.

Frankly, I’m sure many people would think we’re crazy. I don’t think many financial advisers would encourage people to do what we’ve done. Through the months that we volunteered we just realized, we simply accepted that “Yes, it is a great risk. Yes, there is a great need. Yes, we may lose our shirts. But we care enough to risk it.”

Sometimes we chose not to be paid, to keep things going. We went two years and 10 months without a paycheck. We used our 401 (k)s and mortgaged against our home. We started getting paychecks again three months ago.

We’ve managed to do with $200,000 to $300,000 what a corporation would spend more than $1 million for. We had a couple of opportunities to take this for-profit and we chose not to do it, to keep costs down for the people in developing countries.

Q What advice do you have for other young men and women considering this big life and career change?

A I would suggest that they find a passion that’s also a win-win-win, that can go on and on. This project will improve the health, the environment and the dignity of lives. I can’t imagine we would have stuck with this if we didn’t see the obvious win-win-win.

Be ready to accept some tough decisions and circumstances as part of you life. They’re likely. Giving up 401(k)s. Going without wages I’d love a new kitchen floor and counter, but I don’t have the money. I can live with this because ultimately I now I’m pursuing something that matters more to me.

With spouses, if you’re not in agreement, this is stressful enough to deteriorate any marriage. We made a joint decision to pursue this passion and leave our careers.

There have been two or three times Mike and I have come close to giving up, and God provided at those stages. When we review, our faith continues to assure us.

Even the honor of this award could attract people who are willing to send donations or who have contacts with foundations.

I don’t want to live like a pauper, and I don’t expect to. We’re not home free yet. Was this a good idea for us? When you look at the intrinsic internal value of this, I say, absolutely.

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