Most of us think recycling means tossing a soda can or newspaper into the proper bin. But the Rotary Club of London, Ont., is taking the concept to a new level: It's recycling schools.
After the January 2010 earthquake devastated much of Haiti, the London club began collecting desks, chairs, bookshelves, and other supplies from Canadian schools that were closing, then shipping the items to Haiti. And because recycling a school is a logistical puzzle, this massive project involves a close partnership with the Rotary Club of Pétion-Ville, Haiti, along with contributions from Rotary clubs and districts in four countries; support from the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund; a Rotary Foundation Matching Grant; and dozens of volunteers donating hundreds of hours.
London club members came up with the idea when they discovered that their local school district would be closing about 20 schools over the next several years because of low enrollment. The district had begun giving away the contents of the schools and was more than happy to have Rotarians make use of them. "It's surplus furniture. We have no need for it and no facility to store it," says Paul Tufts, superintendent of education for the Thames Valley District School Board and a member of the London club. "It's good news for everybody."
Past RI Director John Eberhard, also a member of the London club, reached out to the Pétion-Ville club to partner on the project. Pétion-Ville Rotarians identified two heavily damaged primary schools in need of assistance. The effort fit well with the goal of rebuilding schools, identified by the Haiti Task Force, a group of Rotarians helping to channel funds to Haiti.
Only half of primary school-age children in Haiti are enrolled in school, and less than 2 percent finish secondary school. The adult literacy rate is 53 percent. Schools have to manage with what little supplies and furnishings they have, so it doesn't take much to improve on the situation, according to Pétion-Ville club member Raphael Izmery.
"Schools in Haiti have always had urgent needs, as they are underfunded. Children don't have access to proper school books and supplies. Students often spend the day at school without a meal, and classrooms often don't have adequate space, chairs, or desks," Izmery says. Since the earthquake, conditions have only worsened, he adds.
Haitians will welcome the shipments from Canada, which are expected to arrive throughout the year, says Marlï¿½ne Gay, a member of the Pétion-Ville club who is heading up the project in Haiti. "This will get children back to school. A lot of schools have not recovered yet. Everything was destroyed, so they have to start from scratch, and this will definitely help," she explains.
Although the furniture is free, shipping the items from Canada to Haiti is not. The London and Pétion-Ville clubs began by donating US$100 each. As Eberhard put the Rotary network to work, he helped turn that $200 contribution into $163,210. He circulated word about the project, and districts 4380 (Venezuela), 5160 (California, USA), and 7620 (Washington, D.C., and Maryland, USA) contributed a total of $60,000 to the cause. Their generosity stemmed from "a level of trust among Rotarians and Rotary clubs," Eberhard says.
The London club also received $46,000 from the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund, a donor advised fund that The Rotary Foundation established to streamline contributions from Rotarians to projects in Haiti. A $57,000 Matching Grant helped round out the coffers.
Using the funds raised, the London club purchased several 40-foot containers for shipment. The cost of the containers and estimated shipping from Canada to Haiti is $83,000.
The balance of the funding will help purchase items in Haiti, including laptops, solar panels, and even musical instruments. After the earthquake, all of the instruments were stolen from a school that had a small music program. The project will help put violins, flutes, drums, and keyboards back into students' hands.
Bruce McGauley, of the London club, is in charge of logistics for collecting supplies from the closed schools. "We've only got so much time to grab the stuff. Otherwise they will dump it, and we want to prevent that from happening," he says.
It takes a crew five to six hours to load a 40-foot container. McGauley recruits volunteers from his club and District 6330 (Ontario and Michigan, USA), as well as neighbouring District 7080 (Ontario), where some of the schools are located. "There's a lot of moving around, but when you get a group of 20 to 30 people, many hands make light work," he says. The volunteers have developed a system for packing the containers as full as possible. "I think we could get into the logistics business," McGauley muses.
Between June and December, volunteers emptied 11 schools. At least two containers have been shipped to Haiti, with more to come. In the meantime, the Rotarians are storing salvaged items in donated barn space. And they still have many more schools to clean out.
"There's really not much wrong with this stuff other than scratches and dents," says McGauley. "Most of these desks and file cabinets and teacher's chairs are going to last for another 50 years."
While the Rotarians' initial goal was to help about 600 children and 20 teachers at two schools, there is so much excess furniture and so many supplies that they've expanded the project. The Pétion-Ville club has identified 15 other schools that need help in the Port-au-Prince area, and Gay estimates that the containers from Canada could eventually benefit 3,000 children.
"With this project, children will be returning to school right away and don't have to wait for any support from the government," says Claude Surena, a member of the Pétion-Ville club and the Haiti Task Force.
Eberhard and McGauley are planning to visit Haiti to see the needs firsthand and to witness the impact of the project. "We are anxious to meet some of the people we've been communicating with and to make personal connections," McGauley says. "It's all about education and making a better life for young people in the future."