Every night, as Chantal Boulanger cleans the classrooms at U-32, she finds returnable bottles in the trash cans and recycling bins. If you walk down the hallway around 4:00 pm, you’ll see these bottles lined up along the windowsills of the classrooms.
Chantal and her coworkers sift through the trash and recycling each night, pulling out recyclable bottles which are later collected and taken to a redemption center. The money is sent to a middle school in Honduras.
Xiomara Blakely is the mastermind behind this process. She moved to Vermont from Honduras in 2002 in search of healthcare and a stable job to support her two daughters. Her parents soon followed, also finding employment at U-32.
Fellow custodian Sam Lakey said Xiomara “can be timid, but she has a lot of oomph.”
She remembers Xiomara learning to drive. The custodians urged her to learn on the floor cleaner, and initially Xiomara refused. However, when no one was paying attention, Xiomara would get on the cleaner and drive it down the hallways. Within a year, she had her license.
Sam was impressed not just by Xiomara’s tenacity, but by her kindness. While the other custodians gossip, Sam said, “Xiomara will laugh along, but I have never heard her say an unkind word about anybody.”
“When you first meet her,” Sam said, “she’ll find something to compliment about you, to put you at ease.”
Her compassion extends beyond her coworkers to the environment. Custodian Bill Dunn said, “She has done more for recycling than anyone else in Vermont.” She saves plastic bags and containers, and admires countries like Cameroon, which have banned single-use bags entirely.
As a custodian in Vermont, Xiomara frequently notices wasteful behavior. “When we’re cleaning, we find a lot of pencils. A lot of notebooks.” Xiomara said, “In some places– not only Honduras but a lot of countries– they don’t have the opportunity to have all of these things we have here.”
“I said ‘oh, we can start collecting bottles, and that way we can recycle the bottles, and we will have money.’”
But Xiomara’s project is not all about the environment.
The money she gets from returning cans is sent to Xiomara’s sister, Karla Perez. She teaches at Brisas de Monja, a middle school in Olanchito, Honduras. While public education is free in Honduras, the costs of uniforms, transportation, and school supplies fall on the families and teachers.
“Sometimes you don’t even have tables,” Xiomara said. “Sometimes you don’t have a roof, and if you have a roof it’s leaking.”
As of 2001, 66% of the population in Honduras lived below the poverty line, making $5.50 per day or less. Since parents can’t afford supplies and the government provides little financial support, many teachers pay for supplies out of their own salaries.
Karla is one such teacher. “One time she was teaching 60 students, in one class,” Xiomara remembered. “She was losing her voice because she was (shouting).” Another time, a boy told Karla that he could not go on a field trip because he didn’t have any shoes.
Besides uniforms and supplies, Karla uses the money to buy food.
“If someone wasn’t ready for class because they have empty stomachs, she’d say, ‘here, go and eat something,’” Xiomara said.
The custodians only receive around 5 cents for every can, which wouldn’t buy much in the U.S. But, the money adds up. In the beginning, they set a goal to send $100 every three months, and they’ve been collecting the bottles now for about five years. Currently, one US dollar is worth 23 Honduran Lempira. “In Honduras it’s a lot of money,” Xiomara said. “You can buy a lot of supplies.” The custodians agree that this work has opened their eyes to waste. “In America, we don’t think recycling is worth it,” says Sam Lakely. “But in Honduras, 10 cents can be a lot.”