“How can civil engineering knowledge help you actually make the world better?” Jessica Winschel chewed on this idea throughout her college career. What could have easily slipped away as an afternoon’s daydream instead spurred an altruistic initiative that the University of Notre Dame has supported for six years running — and six small villages in Central America are still reaping the rewards.
Winschel’s quest to combine her civil engineering education with charity led her to Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), an organization delivering access to essential healthcare, education and economic opportunities by constructing footbridges over impassable rivers in otherwise isolated communities. Its efforts enable 12% more children to enroll in school, 24% more people to get healthcare treatment, 18% more women to gain employment and 15% more local businesses to open their doors.
The organization was exactly what Winschel was looking for. She got in touch with B2P and began the year-long planning process of raising funds to travel to the next locale in need, Pena Blanca, Honduras, and designing a bridge to fit its unique needs. Soil composition needed to be studied to determine if it could support a bridge. Previous river flood levels had to be documented.
Winschel’s friend, fellow Notre Dame civil engineering alum and Bluebeam Software employee Katie Sushinsky, was on board for the initial bridge-building project in Peña Blanca, Lempria, Honduras. They pulled in four more civil engineering students and embarked on the adventure to Central America.
While an enthusiastic participant, Sushinsky admits that even her careful preparation didn’t brace her for the culture shock of that initial project. Although the locals were very welcoming and grateful, the team had to adjust to a very different lifestyle. Drinking tap water was now off-limits, and mosquitoes and long hikes were expected every day for the next four weeks.
Upon the team’s arrival to this inaugural build in 2009, Sushinsky realized instantly how important their efforts would be: There was already a bridge in place but, as she discovered, instead of steel cables supporting it from end to end, it was constructed using barbed wire.
Locals eagerly anticipated the construction of the bridge, explaining that it would allow their children to attend school during the rainy season. (The following year’s project in Paliqui, San Miguel Uspatan, Guatemala, was built after the team learned that school attendance dropped by half during the rainy season.)
The Honduran bridge would also mean residents could take their horses into town to buy necessities. Without the bridge, locals had to travel several miles on foot or horseback to another bridge that allowed safe crossing. Upon successful completion of the new and more conveniently located bridge, locals were thrilled that their lifestyles and their children’s education would no longer be dictated by the rains. They reported that they were planning to build another bridge with the steel cable, plans and miscellaneous supplies left by the Notre Dame project team.
On the team’s most recent annual project during the summer of 2014 in Mata de Tule, Nicaragua, locals further illuminated how meaningful a well-constructed footbridge is to residents. The eldest member of the community, Doña Sinforoza, valued the project so highly she confided to the team that she prayed God would grant her enough time on earth to cross the bridge. Once she crossed, she said He could do with her what He wished.
Sinforoza shared her story that long ago, pregnant with her first son, she needed to cross the flooded river. Her husband assured her that everything would be fine; he would hold her tight and help her across. The two entered the river, which quickly proved too strong for the pair, ripping Sinforoza from her husband’s grasp. She hurdled downstream as her husband scrambled to catch her. Luckily, her husband managed to reach her, and Sinforoza and her baby were unharmed.
When the Mata de Tule bridge she had dreamed of was complete, it was Sinforoza who cut the ribbon and made the inaugural walk across with project manager Maria Krug.
The initial team in Honduras did an excellent job and valued the process so much that the Notre Dame Students Empowering through Engineering Development (NDSEED) program was born. The group is now an official university chapter of B2P and makes an annual pilgrimage to a location in need, where they work with the community to construct bridges using local materials and practices that can be replicated by the local communities.
Looking back, Sushinsky laughs about the group’s humble beginnings. After recently traveling with NDSEED as a mentor on its sixth bridge project, she noted how much better prepared and knowledgeable the teams have become, especially as later projects were constructed in locations where electricity and indoor plumbing were not available or guaranteed. The program has grown remarkably; a student selection that used to only include civil engineering students now includes those majoring in social sciences who travel with the team to study the social impact of construction.
NDSEED is now focused on Nicaragua and has plans to build a bridge per summer there for the foreseeable future. The bridges grow more sophisticated in their construction every year while using designs that locals can maintain.