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Sonoma County Teamsters members driving buses cross country to aid schoolchildren in Haiti

Few cross-country road trips finish without a hiccup of some kind, but Juan Gallo of Rohnert Park was relieved it happened Thursday — before the nearly 3,000-mile drive to Orlando, Florida.

The group of local Teamsters union members realized one of the three donated charter buses and an ambulance they soon would be driving to South Florida needed new batteries, a setback that delayed their departure until Friday.

The final destination for the vehicles is Carrefour, Haiti, where they will be used to transport schoolchildren and help generate revenue for a public tent school started by Oakland-based nonprofit Those Angels Inc. The ambulance, donated by the Ross Valley Fire Department in Marin County, will be just the second paramedic vehicle in the more than 511,000-person Haitian commune.

Teamsters members in Sonoma County have untangled what Those Angels founder Claude Joseph of Berkeley called “a logistical nightmare,” and are helping deliver the four vehicles that will increase access to education in Haiti, where almost four of five students never get past elementary school.

In a matter of minutes Thursday morning, a mechanic that specializes in buses arrived at the industrial yard in south Santa Rosa where they had been parked. A few phone calls later, Larsen Racing Products in Petaluma had agreed to donate new batteries.

A few boxes of hand sanitizer from Petaluma-based Lightning Spirits also were being sent over in the buses.

In recent weeks, members of Teamsters Local 665, which represents transportation workers in Sonoma County and swaths of the Bay Area, have volunteered time, donated resources and managed onerous operational challenges thanks to a vast network of laborers, eager to aid communities in need.

Robert Conklin, of Petaluma, one of the four local residents driving in the caravan to Orlando, was in Butte County last weekend performing animal rescues in areas tormented by the deadly North Complex fires.

"Everybody deserves to have a good living situation,“ said Conklin, a local construction worker running for Petaluma City Council this fall. “As much as we can, we will always help out.”

For the Florida journey, the plan is to drive nearly 10 hours a day over five days, stopping in Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas and Georgia before arriving in Orlando.

There, the cross-country relay will change hands with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s office. Miami officials will receive and house the vehicles until they can get them onto a barge bound for Haiti.

The network constructed for this critical vehicle delivery was all done by the Bay Area Teamsters, Joseph said.

This caravan marks the second delivery of Northern California buses to Haiti through Those Angels, the nonprofit Joseph started in 2015. He was inspired by several trips back to his homeland where he confronted the realities of a significant lack of access to education.

Roughly 40% of Haitian children between the ages of 5 and 15 do not attend school, and 80% of enrollment requires tuition to private schools. In terms of public education, aside from the political chaos, the biggest obstacle is transportation, Joseph said.

Those Angels opened its first school in Carrefour three years ago, thanks to buses from Sacramento City Unified School District. The school now houses 150 students, 90 of whom were illiterate but are now reading and writing, he said.

Having charter buses will help provide greater revenue opportunities for the buses, which will be rented or used as public transportation. Contractual agreements between the donating agencies and the Haitian tent school ensure those dollars go directly to the program, Joseph said.

The Haitian expatriate thinks the most important social justice cause is education. In a nation ravaged by destructive hurricanes and political impasses that trap citizens in cycles of hardship, repurposing excesses like unused vehicles is an easy way to help his homeland.

“If children are not getting an education, which is a right, that’s the biggest injustice in this day and age,” Joseph said.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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