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Vegan vehicles carry earthy message

SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL

by Joanne Sanchez

One of their buses broke down in San Luis Obispo. But the second bus, hand-painted with the colors of the rainbow, kept on going.

Friday morning, 20 members of environmental-education group Common Vision, packed into the colorful school bus that doubles as their home, arrived in Watsonville bearing fruit trees and drums to spread their word about sustainable living.

The stop at Watsonville Community School marked the halfway point of the group’s 70-day Fruit Tree Tour, aimed at teaching ecology to students at mostly urban schools from San Diego to Sacramento.

"If (students) get their hands dirty in the soil, they will develop a relationship with the earth," said Common Vision founder Blair Philips, a UC Santa Cruz graduate.

The nonprofit travels in a caravan of vehicles powered by vegetable-oil — two buses and two trucks. But one of its buses is in the shop, and the group has been forced to cram into one bus that sleeps eight to 10 people.

"It is tight but it is doable," said member Julia Trunzo. "We are very adaptable."

The group’s reception was mixed at the 80-student alternative school, which serves many at-risk kids. "They’re weird," some kids whispered. But the group’s message seemed to get across.

While helping plant an apple tree, student Jorge Lopez, 15, said he didn’t mind getting dirty — it got him out of math class.

Later into the planting, he began to show appreciation.

"It is our school, and we have to take care of it. It is our planet and we have to preserve it," he said.

In addition to gardening, the kids were asked to participate in a drumming circle, an activity that seemed more popular.

Group members told the students that all indigenous people have one rhythm in common — the earth’s heartbeat, and that it represents the heartbeat of all life.

The group’s earth-oriented message is backed by its earth-sensitive actions — at least in the way it travels.

Its buses run on vegetable oil discarded by restaurants. Trunzo said the oil from fast-food restaurants works, but group members prefer the oil discarded by Chinese restaurants because it’s usually the cleanest.

The bus can travel nearly 2,000 miles on one tank of vegetable oil, Trunzo said.

The oil is free, so the vegetable-oil vehicles are a valuable asset to the group. The nonprofit relies on donations for most of its funding, and the tour is expected to cost more than $40,000.

Blair said the inspiration for Common Vision came from not being fulfilled after graduating from UCSC with a degree in environmental studies.

He said he wanted to pursue a more hands-on approach to sustainability.

Mariel Halupa, an instructional aid at Watsonville Community School, said she was glad to have the group visit.

"The kids learned about the environment and got a sense of community and a sense of other cultures and traditions."

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