From Surplus to Big Plus

Every so often, many of us are lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time to participate in a truly remarkable event.

The event described below was organized by Eddie and Kelly O’Toole, friends who have spent several years in Honduras. Eddie’s first involvement there was with the Peace Corps. Subsequent to that, they returned on their own to set up a school in Guaimaca, a town of several thousand people. Through donations from friends and others, they were able to construct a school building and partially furnish it.

Eddie began by teaching repair of vehicles, ranging from a deserted tractor to broken bicycles. Then he moved on to pottery making and computers. Many more skills, including music lessons, have also been introduced.

In order to build and furnish the school, among other things, Eddie bought an old school bus and refurbished it. Then he filled it with donated items, many from a building that was being razed. He drove the bus to Honduras, kept the contents, and was able to sell the bus for enough to cover his expenses. He repeated the renovated school bus activity a second time, but this time he shipped it for roughly the same amount of money it would have cost to drive it there.

Another time he raised sufficient funds to purchase a used ambulance, which he shipped and which got so much use that he had to replace the tires not long after. The ambulance was a first for the town, which has no hospital.

Now to describe the event in which we were joyful participants: In southern Berkshire County, Mass., two elementary schools and one middle school closed two summers ago and were consolidated into a new building with mostly new furnishings. The towns auctioned off leftover school furniture to interested local folks. However, this barely made a dent in the supply.

Enter Eddie, the right man at the right time, with a group of the right kind of friends for labor.

The schools were happy to give away their surplus items. What then turned out to be key was the Chiquita Banana Company. This corporation delivers fresh bananas from Honduras to New England every day. Often the truck goes back empty. It turns out that for $3,200 it is possible to fill the 40-foot truck to the rooftop with anything you want to send and have it delivered to Honduras. There was so much more equipment and furniture than Eddie’s school could use. However, there was a Catholic nun that Eddie knew who is responsible for the education of thousands of Honduran Children. Much of their education is by radio during the week, with meetings on weekends at a variety of locations. She could use all the surplus items Eddie could deliver and she was able to come up with the $3,200 for the delivery, sharing some of the contents with Eddie.

Seldom had novice furniture movers worked more vigorously than the day of loading. Folks had brought summer clothing and sports and medical equipment to stuff in everywhere there were spaces. More than a hundred student desks were disassembled so they could be stacked more tightly.

Four-drawer file cabinets, which just fit across the truck six abreast, with about a sixteenth of an inch to spare, were filled with reams of paper donated by sources other than the school. Also, a couple of dozen microscopes went along and many, many computers, monitors, and printers, plus every other thing imaginable, including wheelchairs, walkers, blackboards, bicycles, right down to a shoeshine kit someone had donated.

Yet, when we finally completed our task and locked the door of the truck, a vast assortment of items was still there to be shipped, much of it still at the schools. (We had had to move everything from the schools to an area that could serve as a loading dock, because the truck would only come on the condition that such was provided and the schools had none.)

As luck would have it, it would have cost the schools about $3,200 to pay a company to take away their surplus to a dump. Hence, the school boards came up with the cash for a second truckload, which was duly packed and sent along its way. But lo and behold, still much remained.

This time, to our delight and chagrin for its lateness, we discovered that if we could show that ours was a charitable endeavor, we could ship for half price. We did, and by the end of the third truckload, we had finally sent off most of the best stuff. We gave away the remainder to any takers.

Readers may not know an Eddie in Honduras, nor have three schools closing nearby. However, many developing countries send regular shipments of goods or foodstuffs here and the containers they come in may go back empty. Some of you may have connections there.

All kinds of buildings come down from time to time, and our dumps are too full. Some of these buildings may have abundant surplus furnishings or salvageable materials, as was the case here. Others may come down in such a way that doors, windows, sinks, toilets, pipes, wires, etc., can be removed and shipped to a location only too happy to have them.

Please put this idea in the back of your head and be ready when and if an opportunity presents itself.

Eddie went down to meet the trucks, thus ensuring the items got to their proper destination. Any group undertaking such a project might wish to give some thought to that aspect of the enterprise. Also, an inventory is required for duty at the port.

Good luck to any who might consider such a genuinely rewarding adventure.

Don Lathrop

Don Lathrop is a longtime attender of Old Chatham (N.Y.) Meeting. Eddie moved to Honduras in 1996 with his family. He and his wife and daughter have organized 10 such truckloads into Honduras and have used banana trucks for the last five trips.