Churches around Charlotte are giving retired school buses a new assignment.
About 20 churches in the Carolinas, including First Baptist Church of Huntersville, have long worked with a school in Bayonnaise, Haiti, about 70 miles north of Port-au-Prince.
The churches recently found that the cheapest way to get supplies to the school was to buy old school buses, fill them with supplies and drive them to West Palm Beach, Fla.
The buses are then shipped on a boat to a port in Haiti; the man who runs the school drives them to Bayonnaise.
The first two buses arrived early this year. When the devastating earthquake hit Port-au-Prince in January, the churches began publicizing their bus strategy.
They've put together a manual on how to buy and pack buses, purchase supplies at a good price and get the bus to Haiti. Buying, stocking and transporting each bus to Haiti costs about $17,000.
"We have found it is cheaper to buy food here and send it, and to send it in a bus than in a container," said Jim Smith, a deacon at FBC Huntersville. "The man who runs the school can sell (the buses) for three times what we paid for them here and turn around and buy more food."
FBC Huntersville recently bought the first old school bus for the Haiti program.
Smith said the bus was recently retired from the Union County fleet. FBC went in on the purchase with a church from South Carolina, and they got a discount for buying two buses at once. Each cost $1,875, Smith said.
An FBC member's relative who works as a chef helped the church buy 10,000 pounds of rice, 4,000 pounds of beans and 160 gallons of cooking oil. On a recent Friday, 30 volunteers from FBC and the community spent three hours loading the supplies.
Volunteers installed plywood behind the driver and front passenger seats to make room for the people who will drive the bus to West Palm Beach in the next few weeks.
They shoved bags of rice under and on seats and in the aisle, and the stacks grew so high they were visible through the bus windows. When the food was loaded, volunteers stuffed in clothes and shoes.
"(The donations) literally went to the ceiling of the bus and behind and under all the seats," Smith said. "You can't open the back door without stuff falling out of it."
Bayonnaise had a population of about 80,000 before the earthquake. In the weeks afterward, more than 165,000 refugees fled there.
"All these refugees are homeless, with no food or anything, so the storehouse at the school was quickly depleted," Smith said.
Several Charlotte churches are working on buses, and Smith hopes more will join in.
If FBC can raise the money, Smith said, it will buy and fill another bus. If not, it will load donations on other churches' buses.
Smith said the churches had more plans for Haiti in place before the earthquake, such as building a medical clinic in Bayonnaise and working with deforestation issues.
"It's really enlightened people about the situation in Haiti," Smith said.
For information about Buses for Bayonnaise, visit ofcbministries.org or call Smith at 704-892-9650.