Eddie O'Toole ships American surplus to Honduras, dramatically affecting people's lives.
These are just a few of the things the small towns and cities in the center of Honduras might not have if it weren’t for Eddie O’Toole. And so everyone in that region, especially in the small city of Guaimaca, knows him.
Over the past fifteen years, O’Toole, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, since 1989, has delivered a smorgasbord of supplies and equipment to Guaimaca and dramatically affected the lives of people there. The local health clinic in nearby Orica had space for a dental office but no equipment; O’Toole got the dental clinic up and running. There was no ambulance to get people to the health clinic; now there is. Ten years ago, O’Toole arranged to ship 1,000 used bicycles and taught scores of teens how to dismantle and rebuild them; today, people are still riding those bikes. And seven days a week, at the learning center O’Toole built, kids and adults are reading in the library or taking music, dance, or art lessons.
O’Toole used to transport the items via school bus, two of which he drove down himself. Then Honduras passed a law prohibiting old buses from entering the country, and O’Toole devised another plan. Spying a huge freight ship hauling bananas from Honduras to the United States, and realizing it made the return trip empty, O’Toole contracted with a major banana company to let him rent the container space to take supplies from the United States to Central America.
The banana company charges $5,000 for each shipment to Honduras, so O’Toole crams everything he can into the forty-foot-long containers. “We filled in all the nooks and crannies with crutches and kids’ clothing,” he says. “There was no airspace, it was totally full. We had commodes, too, and eighty-two gallons of paint donated by a hardware store.”
And it’s not just freight that arrives with O’Toole: Over the past two years, he’s brought seven volunteers with him to teach classes and work in the library, and another seven—parents and high school children—went this summer.
“A man was sitting at a storefront with a prosthetic leg, and he said, ‘Do you know who got this for me? It was Eddie,’” recalls Linda Giancola, a retired schoolteacher who traveled to Guaimaca last year with O’Toole to work for two weeks in the library. “Another man said, ‘He saved my daughter’s life by taking her to the hospital in the ambulance.’ It was one story after another like that. Everywhere we went, people would stop and get out of their cars, get off their bicycles, to come running to him.”
Like Giancola, Bob Sykes is a member of the Pittsfield UU Church who traveled to Guaimaca, staying for ten days in February and teaching massage therapy to groups of residents. “You cannot go anywhere without someone stopping to say hello to Eddie,” Sykes says. “And he’ll stop in just about every house to say hello or ask how the family is doing. He is a great, great ambassador putting a wonderful face on [the American] people.”
O’Toole first visited Guaimaca in the late 1970s while a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras. “Up until that time, I’d read about poverty, but I hadn’t really seen it until I hit Honduras,” recalls O’Toole, who’d grown up on Long Island and worked as an auto mechanic since he was fourteen. After his Peace Corps tour he vowed to return someday to work. After moving to Pittsfield and marrying wife Kelley—who served in the Peace Corps in Kenya—the couple decided in 1996 to take their toddler daughter Sonrisa to Guaimaca. They planned to stay five years, and they had three goals: to become part of the community there, to raise Sonrisa in a different culture, and to teach residents skills in auto mechanics with tools they would provide. But his plan was to grow into so much more.
The family fitted an old school bus with a bathroom and kitchen, packed it with automotive equipment and tools, and drove down to Honduras after spending three months in Arkansas caring for the children of a friend who had been hospitalized. Shortly after they arrived, Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, and they became deeply involved in recovery efforts, including helping to rebuild homes. They’d also begun teaching automotive classes to schoolchildren. But O’Toole realized the community could do much more if it had more resources, and he wrote a letter to the Pittsfield UU Church asking for support.
That was the turning point. A couple in the congregation, Margaret and Richard Dunn, sent O’Toole $15,000 that became the seed money for big plans: specifically, to build a library and a learning center where teams of volunteers could teach vocational skills and other classes to townspeople. Over the next thirteen years, the family lived in Guiamaca and worked on constructing the building while O’Toole traveled back and forth from the United States, getting donations of supplies and equipment and transporting them down, first via school bus, then by the banana company’s ships. The family returned to the Berkshires in Massachusetts two years ago for Sonrisa to attend high school, but O’Toole has made three trips back to Guiamaca.
“The reason to build the building was, if people are interested in going to Central America and working, there’s a beautiful setup there, with a library, shop space, a ceramics studio,” explains O’Toole, who travels to Honduras once or twice a year.
“We really try to give students some things their schools don’t,” says O’Toole. “We have pianos, violins, organs, a cello, a guitar, so if someone is interested in teaching music, we are set up. We are set up also for ceramics and mechanics. The building makes it easy for volunteers to do their work.”
When people live in a land of plenty, they often discard items with years of useful life left. O’Toole first realized how much waste there was in the United States after returning from his Peace Corps service and visiting a friend on Long Island who planned to dump a relatively new refrigerator simply because its bright yellow hue didn’t fit with the new color scheme in his redecorated kitchen. “I was like, wait! There’s gotta be a way to get this good stuff down to people who need it,” O’Toole recalls thinking. And ever since, he’s been in the business of getting it there.
Indeed, O’Toole is often amused at the variety of things he ends up shipping to Honduras. This winter, as he was preparing for a January shipment, he decided Guiamaca needed sonogram machines. He went on the Internet to find a purveyor of used machines, and, when he telephoned, happened to catch the owner of the business himself. He gave O’Toole ten minutes to explain what he was up to; after hearing O’Toole’s plans, the man ended up donating four sonogram machines, fifteen defibrillators, heart monitors, and more. The sonogram machines were the old-fashioned, bulky kind that health clinics and hospitals no longer desire, but they “are like Toyotas—they’re super-dependable,” O’Toole says.
Another time, a nearby school district that had closed several schools let O’Toole take all the desks, filing cabinets, and chalkboards they no longer needed. “I did three containers in a row that time,” he says. He also got a donation of one hundred computers, which he donated to the police department and mayor’s office in addition to the school. And shortly after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a nursing home contacted him to donate thirty-six crank-style beds; O’Toole arranged with Rotary International to get them to Haiti, which desperately needed them.
Just this May, a public school in the Berkshires called to say it was tearing down its 360-seat theater: Would O’Toole want to take away everything inside and rebuild the theater in Central America? And so his next project is underway.
“He’s a very enthusiastic guy, and I’m sure his enthusiasm has had a lot to do with his success, because he’s able to get people to do things that even surprise him,” says the Rev. Nannene Gowdy, minister of the Pittsfield Unitarian Universalist Church.
The Pittsfield UU Church is one of his biggest benefactors, providing him with $3,000 a year for his work in Honduras. He’s been helped by other UU parishes, as well as Quaker congregations, doctors and dentists, school districts, junkyards, art stores, hardware stores, and individuals.
“The whole thing was about this: How do I expend my energy to help promote world peace; what’s the best thing I can possibly do?” says O’Toole. “That seventeen years between the Peace Corps and then going back down to Honduras with my family was about trying to figure that out. And I think I’ve figured it out.”
Pictured above: Eddie O'Toole stands in a Massachusetts public school's 360-seat theater, which he'll dismantle and then rebuild in Honduras. The theater joins a long list of supplies and resources that O'Toole has brought to Central America. (Photo by Ilene Perlman)
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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