Eliseo (front row, second from left) and Morena (front row, third from left) at a recent meeting of Chispa Maryland volunteers in Baltimore.

Every day, more than 650,000 children in Maryland ride to school on a school bus powered by diesel fuel, which exposes children to toxic exhaust that increases their lifetime risk of respiratory illnesses and even cancer. Approximately one in 10 of these young bus riders suffer from asthma — a leading cause of school absenteeism — and this asthma rate is higher among minority groups.

In Baltimore City and Baltimore County, parents are increasingly rallying in support of both their children and cleaner air, thanks to Chispa Maryland. Chispa, which means “spark” in Spanish, is a program launched in 2014 by Maryland League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. Chispa Maryland ensures that Maryland Latino families and community leaders are a powerful voice for protecting our air, land, water, public health, and future.

The Chispa Maryland team has been engaging and connecting with concerned mothers through canvassing, community house meetings, tabling at events, and PTA meetings. The immediate goal, says Morena Zelaya, the organizing manager for Chispa Maryland, is to encourage these new advocates to push their school boards to commit to transitioning their school bus fleets to zero-emission electric school buses that will protect the health of children and their communities.

The response has been extremely encouraging, says Morena. She and her partner, Chispa Maryland Community Organizer Elíseo Magos González, are now training a new group of 20 Baltimore County volunteer promoters – or “promotores to be leaders on environmental issues that are important to the community, and several of these promotores have already reached out to their school boards about the advantages of electric school buses. Through their work in the Baltimore region, Morena and Eliseo have also established a strong partnership with another Latino-outreach group, Comité Latino de Baltimore.

Health concerns are a driving theme for much of their Latino audience, says Morena. “Several of our new promotores are mothers whose children have asthma. They care about the electric school bus issue and about climate justice because they want better health outcomes for their children, and a better future.”

“Many of the community members we support haven’t had the same education or opportunities that Morena and I have,” says Eliseo. “But they are eager to learn and advocate. I’m confident they will continue to pass the information along and soon we will have a better environment.”

Although the bulk of Chispa Maryland’s work is with Maryland’s Latino communities, the group welcomes support from anyone in Maryland who is interested in advocating for environmental justice locally and statewide. In fact, says Morena, Chispa’s efforts just received a significant boost from a non-Latino PTA president, Rachel Lemus, who offered to advocate for electric school buses at an upcoming Board of Education meeting, and another community leader who is using her Facebook page to promote Chispa and electric school buses.

“We plan to continue to expand the program to communities throughout Maryland, and everyone is welcome,” says Morena. “We need all the help we can get!”

To learn more or to get involved with Chispa Maryland, please contact Eliseo via email at emagos@mdlcv.org or via phone at 240-705-6865.