New director of sustainability hired

Callahan: ‘Oak Park is really seen as a pioneer in this space’

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New director of sustainability hired

Callahan and his wife Alyssa pose in Tanzania with primary school children.

Callahan and his wife Alyssa pose in Tanzania with primary school children.

Photo courtesy of Achieve in Africa

Callahan and his wife Alyssa pose in Tanzania with primary school children.

Photo courtesy of Achieve in Africa

Photo courtesy of Achieve in Africa

Callahan and his wife Alyssa pose in Tanzania with primary school children.

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Ash and smoke particles littered Oak Park schools after the Woolsey fire swept through the community.

Brendan Callahan, the recently appointed Director of Sustainability, Maintenance, and Operations for the Oak Park Unified School District, had barely started his new job when the fires broke out.

“Brendan hit the ground running right from the get-go. He’s articulate, he looks to solve the problems in a global manner and he’s very collaborative,” Director of Student Support and School Safety Stewart McGugan said.

Only two weeks into the job, Callahan was tasked with the job of aiding deep cleaning efforts at schools across the district while they remained closed from Nov. 12-25 due to the fires.

“Our heating and air condition systems, all the air ducts are being cleaned out and then the air filters are all being changed,” Callahan said. “As they’re turned on, we’re going to make sure there’s not ash coming through the vents.”

The district also used air scrubbers to pull air out of the classrooms. All outside surfaces were power-washed: walls, roofs, sidewalks, fields, artificial turfs, etc. At Oak Hills Elementary, the sand area was washed out and raked several times.

Callahan’s job is unique as the position never included the “Sustainability” title before his arrival. Citing how cargo ship containers were repurposed to build the I-building and the solar panels around Oak Park High School, Callahan said the district is “doing a lot of really interesting things and that’s what attracted me to the role.”

“The sustainability piece is a lot more holistic in terms of how can we as people who inhabit this planet, think more holistically about the cycling, think more about limiting our waste,” Callahan said. “We’re accredited nationally with the Green Ribbon Schools, but thinking about how we embed that in our curriculum so the students are learning about it at the same time.”

Callahan grew up in Thousand Oaks but attended Colina Middle School and Westlake High School. Before coming to Oak Park, he previously worked for Green Dot Public Schools, a large group of charter schools in South Los Angeles, serving as their Area Operations and Finance Senior Manager.

While studying business at Boston University, he said he thought he had a grasp on things until went on a mission trip to Africa in 2007.

“I’d done service my whole life, but when I got to college I thought I needed to get into a career that had a good return and that was the primary focus,” Callahan said. “I went on this service trip and it really shook me in a different, more profound way than any type of service I’d done in the past. I’d never traveled to another country and rolled up my sleeves and done work. I’d never seen poverty at that level.”

While in Tanzania, Callahan said he saw classrooms that “were literally crumbling and leaning over to one side to the point where it wasn’t even safe.”

“They had small boulders that the kids would bring into the class to sit on instead of a chair, they didn’t have desks to write on — a severe shortage of materials,” Callahan said.

Once Callahan returned to college, he realized something had to be done. His then-girlfriend now wife Alyssa Callahan and he started Achieve in Africa, a non-profit organization to build schools in Tanzania.

In the small Tanzanian village of Olasita, students could attend a primary school, but there was no higher-level education available. Callahan said school kids would jump in the back of supply trucks to attend secondary school because there was no formal busing system. However, students often could not pay the drivers.

Photo courtesy of Achieve in Africa
Callahan becomes Director of Sustainability, Maintenance, and Operations at the wake of the Woolsey Fire.

“This terrible cycle occurred where these kids wouldn’t have money to pay because they’re living in extremely poor situations,” Callahan said. “The female students would end up having relations with the drivers in lieu of payment. They’d get pregnant and have to drop out of school entirely, all because they didn’t have a secondary school.”

After completing his first project of demolishing an old primary school in Olasita and building a new, safer structure in its place, Callahan’s team decided it was time for a secondary school in Olasita.

Today, the secondary school holds about 1,200 students. Unfortunately, Achieve in Africa had to disband in 2017, but both schools and a community learning center in Ulolela Village continue to function to this day. For now, the Tanzanian government brings in teachers, students and new curriculum.

Since then, Callahan has joined the board of Africaid, a similar non-profit focused in Tanzania.

“Africaid: their mission is all about female empowerment and professional development for girls and mentorship opportunities,” Callahan said.

Besides his philanthropic goals, Callahan hopes to reinforce the importance of financial sustainability where organizations can save money from investing in sustainable efforts. He said OPHS reflects this philosophy through their solar panels, which have decreased utility costs for the district to the point where they’re gathering revenue because the district is creating so much energy.

“As tenants of the Earth, we want to leave this place in a better shape than what we received it in,” Callahan said. “I believe there’s a bit of a myth out there that sustainability is expensive. As technology has improved, they’re starting to be a business piece and an appetite for people to say ‘Wait a minute, if we think about this differently and sustainably, we can actually save money as well.’”

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