Labor organizer scrambles to ship Sacramento school buses to Haiti

Labor organizer Claude Joseph said that when he visited his former home in Haiti two years ago, he was stunned to see how economic conditions had deteriorated because of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake.

So, Joseph and volunteers in Carrefour, a community on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, decided to help. This year, that effort led to $7,500 in donations from several Sacramento labor groups and an agreement with the Sacramento City Unified School District to sell seven surplus school buses at the rock-bottom price of $100 each for use in Haiti.

Now, Joseph, 34, is scrambling to find a way to ship the buses to Haiti on a shoestring budget. The vehicles are in temporary storage at a site in Sacramento until mid-January. He must move them to a new location by then or, better yet, ship them to the quake-stricken country.

Joseph, who led the creation of Those Angels Foundation, said he was distressed when he visited his former home three years after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake and found living conditions were far worse than years ago, when he had resided in a poor slum.

“I remember how it was,” Joseph said from his office in Oakland. “And it had gotten harder. That was something I could not have imagined. It impacted me strongly. I could see myself in some of the kids, and I felt they could have easily been my own children living in that condition.”

Those Angels Foundation, working with a San Diego church, has dedicated itself to building a new school in Carrefour, providing student transportation and creating a safe haven for orphans and “restaveks,” children who live as indentured servants.

There is little progress so far on the project for orphans, Joseph said. But two months ago, the Carrefour school opened to about 30 students in first through fourth grades. It already has grown to 70, and there are plans next year for enrollment to reach 125.

That work was made possible by the $7,500 Joseph’s organization raised largely from labor groups such as Service Employees International Union Local 1021 in Sacramento and the Sacramento Central Labor Council, he said.

Ian Arnold, field representative at the school district for SEIU Local 1021, said he learned from Joseph about the plan to build a school and orphanage in Haiti. When he heard the district planned to dispose of surplus buses, he alerted Joseph, who now works for SEIU in Oakland. In late spring, district trustees approved the sale.

Chuck Ernst, the district’s transportation director, said Sacramento City Unified retired the buses this year after the California Air Resources Board required them to have particulate traps, which would have cost about $20,000 to install per bus. “It was a mandate,” he said. “There would have been a penalty without retrofit by the end of the year.”

The district typically might try to sell to other public agencies, including those outside California, he said. Or they might also have to be scrapped at a cost to the district. In this case, Ernst said, the buses are in good working condition “except for the fact that they don’t have particulate traps required by ARB.”

“I feel pretty good that they were going to go someplace that would help others,” he said.

Now, Joseph is exploring ways to transport the buses to Haiti. He has a bid from one major shipper for $11,600 a bus, plus costs for moving them through customs, a cost he said is well outside his budget.

In Haiti, two of the seven buses would be used to transport students to schools for no cost, including the new school in Carrefour, Joseph said. The other five would be used for public transportation to generate revenue that would help operate the newly opened school.

For more information or to donate, visit www.thoseangels.org. Donations are handled by the Haitian Community Charitable Church on behalf of Those Angels Foundation.