08/11/2012 07:52 EDT | Updated 10/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Why I Helped Build a Bridge in El Rodeo


I've got a pretty typical job. As a business manager in Calgary, Alberta, for Flatiron, a North American road and bridge contractor, I often spend half of my time in our regional office in Calgary, and half in the field, which right now is a Northern Alberta bridge project. But for two weeks earlier this year, my job was anything but typical. It was extraordinary. I worked harder than I'd ever thought I could, met people I never would have otherwise, and most importantly, made a difference.

This spring, I was part of a 15-member team that helped build a footbridge in El Rodeo, Nicaragua, a remote, rural community of 1,000. In the rainy season the El Rodeo River swells from rainfall, making it impossible to cross, cutting off people's access to school, doctors and the tobacco farms where many people work. During the rainy season, school kids, the sick -- everyone -- must hike for several hours upstream to find a safe crossing.

I went to Nicaragua as a volunteer with the non-profit Bridges to Prosperity, which is supported by my employer, Flatiron. Bridges to Prosperity builds footbridges around the world and this was Bridges to Prosperity's 96th bridge, and the sixth bridge built by Flatiron employees.

One of my colleagues, Andy, had such inspiring stories after he helped Bridges to Prosperity build a bridge in El Salvador last year. So when the time came to apply this year, I jumped at the chance.

The problem: I don't travel, and am terrified of flying! The only international travel I've ever done was a beach trip to Mexico in my twenties. But the stories I heard from Andy and other colleagues who'd gone were too good to pass up this opportunity. If they could do it, so could I.

At first, my friends and family thought I was nuts! "You want to go WHERE? And do WHAT? And you're staying WHERE? WHY?" they exclaimed. I had to reassure them that no, I wasn't crazy, and that this was something I had my heart set on.

In mid-March, I hugged my 13-year old twins goodbye at the Calgary Airport and nervously boarded a flight to Houston where I'd meet up with the rest of the team. I'd spent the past few months hearing their voices on conference calls, and seeing their names on email as we prepped for the trip. My excitement at finally starting the journey helped temper my anxiety. In Houston, as team members arrived one by one from across the U.S. and Canada, we greeted each other with excited hugs. Our journey had officially begun.

After arriving in the capitol, Managua, we began the first leg in our three-hour Journey to El Rodeo. Tired from the trip, I was asleep before we even left Managua. When I jolted awake a few hours later, it was like we were in a different world. Before we left, I'd looked at maps and photos of El Rodeo so I would have some idea of what to expect. But what I saw was completely different from anything I ever imagined.

The jolt that roused me was from the potholed road we traveled on. I saw every mode of transportation possible, and a few I thought impossible: walking, oxen-led carts, people on horseback, on mules, bicycles with makeshift seats four people wide, buses with people on the roof and filled with chickens -- all mixed in with cars, motorcycles and trucks. Buildings were made of five different materials: brick, wood, mud, metal and plywood, all on one house. Nearby stood outhouses -- indoor plumbing is rare in rural Nicaragua.

We got out just outside El Rodeo to eat lunch and meet the Mayor. Steve and Eudad, Spanish-speaking members of our team from sister company Turner Construction, helped translate. The Mayor thanked us for coming and told us how important this bridge would be to the community, especially in the rainy season. Kids, the elderly, the sick, everyone is rightly afraid to cross the raging current that is 1.8 meters (six feet) deep and 12 meters (40 feet) wide.

Over the next two weeks, I did things I never imagined doing, including:

• Riding to the bridge site for the first time in the back of a giant dump truck.

• Clearing brush with a machete

• Measuring, cutting and transporting about two kilometers of steel cable 10 cm. thick - see how dirty we all got.

Each day on the bridge site, a group of mostly local residents joined our team of 15 to donate their time and labor to accomplish this crucial community project. We built close relationships with the amazing local team, and they said some nice things about us in this video.

After two hot and exhausting weeks of clearing brush, pulling cables, mixing concrete by hand, installing bridge decking and so much more, the bridge was finally complete! The community came out for an opening celebration, and local children were some of the first to cross the footbridge. They had never been on a suspension, or swaying, bridge before. At first they were apprehensive, but within five minutes, they were laughing and running from side to side.

A big part of why we built this bridge was to provide these children access to school. The locals told us stories of children, adults and animals that had been swept away by the current trying to cross the river. I can't imagine what life would be like living in fear that your child might be lost on the way to school. Seeing their faces, I knew that we had made life just a little bit easier for them, and that we had made a real difference.

Since returning, I've talked a lot about this experience with my kids and planned volunteer activities for us to do as a family here at home. And someday I hope I can take them to a new place so they can experience firsthand how other people live.

I'd go on another trip with Bridges to Prosperity in a heartbeat. I had an amazing opportunity to do this through my employer and Bridges to Prosperity. I'd encourage you to learn more about this organization. Talk to your employer about getting involved, too.

Editor's note: This post has been updated with links since it was first published.