Mayan miracle: we change them, they change us

Published: Monday, Oct. 21 2013 7:26 a.m. MDT

Utahn Kevin Flannery, founder of the Mayan Miracle Foundation, greets friends in Santa Rita who know him as "The Tall Gringo."

Steve Hill

BOUNTIFUL — The reason Kevin Flannery, aka The Tall Gringo, started spreading humanitarian aid south of the border is because he saw what he could give to the people.

The reason he keeps going back is because he saw what the people could give to him.

He tells a story that helps explain the symbiotic relationship.

One day he was standing in Santa Rita, the Mayan village located deep in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula that Flannery “adopted” 13 years ago. He and a Mayan fellow he was talking to were each feeling sympathy for the other: Kevin because the man had a house made out of sticks and no other material possessions to his name; the Mayan man because, well, here’s how Kevin tells it:

“He told me when he woke up that morning it was raining. He just lay there and listened to the rain on the roof. He asked me when was the last time I did that – stayed in my hammock and listened to the rain on the roof. I said I didn’t think I’d ever done that. I had to admit, he had me there.”

And so it goes.

“We give them clothing, they clothe us in perspective. We give them food, they feed our souls with humility. We give them household supplies, they give us joy in simplicity. We offer our desire to help and they offer us true friendship,” is the way Flannery sums it up on the postcards he hands out that explain his Mayan Miracle Foundation (mayanmiraclefoundation.org).

The formal nonprofit foundation dates back to 2007, but the miracle dates back to 2000. That’s when the driver Flannery and his group of fellow sightseers had hired to take them to visit some remote Mayan ruins decided to return to Cancun via the back road that ran through the jungle.

The van eventually came to Santa Rita, a village of about 500 indigenous Mayans – people whose roots reach back to the ruins the American tourists had just explored.

As the villagers stopped to watch them pass through town – a favorite pastime not unlike lying in a hammock and listening to the rain – Flannery asked the driver to stop. On impulse, he and his friends opened their coolers filled with snacks and drinks and began distributing the contents to the crowd.

Long story short: They’re still doing it.

“It became my passion,” says Flannery. And not just his, but the passion of his six children, his wife Tamara, his many friends and neighbors, and, not inconsequentially, everybody who works for him at Shamrock Plumbing, the company Flannery started in 1980 with one truck and a pipe wrench and now employs over 100 people – and every one of them has been to Santa Rita.

“If they work here, they go there,” he says.

The Mayan operation has expanded over the years – from snacks and drinks to food staples like beans and rice to hygiene kits to clothing to building materials to modular homes to a second adopted village named X’uch – but the trips have stayed small, usually limited to eight people at a time. Thus ensuring the common touch remains.

Flannery enjoys personally watching “the miracle” take hold of others just like it grabbed him.

“A lot of the guys we take down who work for me,” he explains, “they’re blue-collar types, they’re tough, they ride Harleys. After we’ve been at the village for three or four days and we’re driving back to the hotel, I ask for their reaction. How it affected them. They start talking about this experience and that experience and by the time we’re back there’s not a dry eye in the van.”

The people of Santa Rita “don’t live paycheck to paycheck, they live day to day,” he says. “They always have, they always will. And yet, as the saying goes, ‘If you’re smilin’ you’re Mayan.’ So it’s kinda crazy. You realize how it’s the little things that matter.”

The 6-foot-3 Flannery, 60, has made more than 70 trips to the Yucatan over the past 13 years, and the man the locals call la altura gringo couldn’t stop now if he tried. “I work harder at this than I work at work,” he says, adding paradoxically, “it’s so much fun.” He’s bought a house down the coast from Cancun that acts as a sort of expedition headquarters, and the native Mexican who first drove that van through Santa Rita, Daniel Lugo, remains the foundation’s driver and man-on-the-ground.

The overhead to keep it all running is not inconsiderable, so every June they host a golf tournament fundraiser and on Sat., Nov. 2 they will put on a 5K run/walk in Farmington called “Day of the Dead,” coinciding with the famous celebration that is a bank holiday in Mexico. You can register at mayanmiraclefoundation.org. One lucky participant will win an expense-paid trip to the Yucatan, where they’ll put you to work handing out shoes or pouring cement for folks who, Kevin Flannery promises, will in turn do nothing more, or less, than change your life.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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