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Big Ideas for Planet Earth in a New Jersey Man's Bus

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Donna Elazar and Bryan Callahan work on their bus while Lila, their dog, watches
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Bus appliances operate on low-pressure propane. Callahan is adding solar panels and batteries for other electrical needs
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ROXBURY NJ – Back in his Roxbury High School days, Bryan Callahan wasn’t a football star, a gifted member of the marching band or president of the student council.

He preferred running wires to running fields. His favorite instruments didn't make music; he measured volts.

The Kenvil resident said he did receive one acknowledgment from the school, an accolade somewhat related to his passion for tinkering with wires, switches, bulbs, gauges and the like: “I graduated in 2003 with the Senior Award in Science Excellence,” he said with a chuckle.

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Now, the kid who installed a siren and a pushbutton alarm system in his backyard treehouse, is close to accomplishing a long-held dream: He and girlfriend Donna Elazar are planning to hit the road in a 43-foot-long, 2001 International Genesis school bus on a mission to help the planet.

The bus has been converted into a home on wheels that the couple will use to roam the nation as evangelists for off-the-grid, sustainable living. 

This week, Callahan, 31, and Elazar, 24, were busy installing solar panels atop the huge vehicle. They hope to get the bus road-ready in time to take it all the way to Oregon next month, where they volunteered to work at Oregon Eclipse a week-long “sustainability event” that starts Aug. 17 and coincides with an upcoming solar eclipse.

Callahan planned to be rolling across America by now with Elazar and their frisky white Lab named Lila. But rash of last-minute bad luck put the brakes on that idea.

“During this year, we overcame various setbacks, all the while pushing onward,” Callahan wrote on an online crowdfunding site where he is seeking donations to finish the bus project. “But, on what was to be the eve of our departure a few weeks ago in June, a fender bender and our only two cars breaking down on the same day destroyed the capital we had left to finish the conversion and get us to our first destination.”

It’s not the first setback. Callahan bought the bus in November from a man in Egg Harbor. While he was driving the rig home to Roxbury, one of the front air brakes failed. There was also an issue with some frozen waste water lines this winter.

But with Callahan installing security systems and Elazar - a 2015 honors graduate of Ramapo College - also working, money was found to fix the brakes and water lines. Before the recent setbacks, they had the cash they needed to finish the bus and head west.

“Our main goal is to look for farms and small communities that are trying to integrate permaculture ideas,” Callahan said. “Permaculture is a form of farming that integrates the natural cycles of the earth … What I’m trying to do is bring in the off-grid and sustainable power to run pumps for irrigation and do all the heavy-lifting stuff our technological society does.”

Callahan and Elazar are no strangers to nationwide travel. They’ve already crisscrossed the country – in a pickup with a homemade camper top – helping out at events and projects aligned with their belief in sustainable lifestyles.

“These individuals are some of the most inspiring people I have had the pleasure to know,” said Ryan Vander Horn, a friend of Callahan and Elazar. “They live their life untethered by the mundane and superficial aspects of everyday life. Bryan and Donna have a drive that stems not from concern for the expectations and desires of others, but rather from the needs and cries for help that rise up from the collective.”

Vander Horn, a former Rutgers University English major about to head to law school, said he’s seen Callahan and Elazar in action and is awed by their conviction and generosity.

“No matter what environment they find themselves in, you can notice their sense of duty to the community around them,” he said. “Whether it is at a friend's house lending a helping hand with chores, or teaching workshops at festivals around the country, the main goal is to help those around them.”

Callahan said he is acutely aware there are people in dire circumstances, facing illnesses or situations far more worthy of charity. In the first sentence of his crowdfunding page, he says “asking for help isn’t easy for me.”

His hope is that others who share his beliefs will chip in a little to help. He said the bus, with almost everything inside powered by the sun, will be like a “portfolio” on wheels, a lumbering, tan and blue example of simple living and ingenuity.

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