Wanting to be charitable while also being ecologically minded, Becky and Bill Costas helped create Cortland Humanitarian Outreach Worldwide (C.H.O.W.) in June 1999.
A lecture that they attended inspired the creation of C.H.O.W.
"We learned about the Denton program," Becky Costas said. "Admiral Jeremiah Denton was a senator, and he made a law where reserve pilots, they need to have so many flight time hours. Instead of flying an empty plane, they would take military aid.
Bill Costas loads desk chairs to send to the Caribbean island of Dominica.
''So this man came and spoke, and explained that you could take thousands of dollars worth of humanitarian aid for just a small amount of money. From that meeting, C.H.O.W. was formed," she said.
"I was working at a school and I thought, 'I'm not a person to raise funds, but I could find supplies and recycle stuff.'"
The plan for recycling school desks grew out of Becky's job at Champion Schools as a sign language interpreter. It gave her contact with schools and access to teachers for unused supplies. She also became aware of what another group was doing.
"The government funded New Horizons exercise in which the United States military reserve units build schools and clinics in Central and South America to build positive relationships in these countries and teach residents building and maintenance skills," Bill Costas said.
The Costases found a portion of the New Horizon mission that wasn't being supplied that they could achieve.
"New Horizons isn't able to equip the schools they build," Bill Costas said. "We had access to desks from local schools. It was a perfect partnership."
By reusing the desks and sending them to other children to use at their schools, the equipment is kept out of landfills.
"We have sent 6,078 desks in 31 shipments to 13 different countries," he said.
The group finds the desks through schools that are closing or remodeling and upgrading their equipment. If school districts had leftover desks after selling to the community or having an auction, the equipment would be donated to C.H.O.W. As a nonprofit organization, they do not have the funding to purchase equipment.
"We used another Denton program where they went through Chiquita," Becky Costas said. "We loaded a Chiquita truck. They go down empty and get bananas, so they would donate a certain number of containers, and we would just pay for the driver and the gasoline. I think it cost $600 to send a shipment."
When that program discontinued operation, for the last seven or eight years they turned to the Department of Defense to transport the desks and school supplies at no cost.
Deciding which country to send the desks was helped by the addition of Dave Gallardo, formerly of the U.S. Air Force's Southern Command, which is responsible for all U.S. military operations in Central and South America.
Now that Becky Costas has established a relationship with Gallardo, she just emails him when they have desks to pick up. This could be as often as four times a year. Some years, there are no shipments. It depends on how many desks they can get and if they have government funding to transport them.
"They go by truck," Becky Costas said. "The truck picks them up, and then they go to a port, usually on the West Coast. The container that we put them in usually goes onto a ship that sails to the port closest to the country that we are sending them."
They know that they are making an impact in young people's lives when they hear their comments and visit their schools.
"When we were in Guatemala, the director of a school we visited told us that the students took their education more seriously after they received the desks because they were touched that someone in the U.S. cared enough about their education to send supplies," Bill Costas said.
He recounted another story of the influence of their donation.
"In another school, the desks were so cherished, they were covered with plastic to protect them and keep them in good shape," he said. "Girls would gladly take turns giving up their recess to wash the desks to keep them clean."
The Costases recently returned from Panama and witnessed the difference that their donations made. It helped them realize that all their time and effort to send the desks is the right thing to do.
They also do some other school-related charitable work in the United States.
"We work with a group in Appalachia," Becky Costas said. "We bring backpacks for teens with school supplies for Christmas. They are new. They seldom get new. We send a shirt and a book along with the backpack."
By saving school desks from city dumps and enriching the lives of children in developing countries, members of C.H.O.W. are making a difference in their own community and in the world.