WHEN IT COMES TO AGC’S WORK WITH BRIDGES TO PROSPERITY, IT’S LITERAL, IT’S FIGURATIVE AND IT’S IMPACTFUL
BY A.D. THOMPSON
How many bridges do you cross in your day-to-day infrastructure that allows you — and all the people in your community — to get to the store, to school, to the doctor?
“Just going to work every day,” offers Mark Carani, executive vice president of Aldridge Electric, an AGC of California and AGC Georgia member. “Count them. What if they weren’t there? Our communities would be smaller, focused around a hub.”
Much like the one in Santa Rosa, Bolivia, a remote, rural village in the foothills of the Andes where Carani — part of a contingent of 10 from Aldridge — helped to build a 275-ft suspension bridge to connect members of this small community to essential services, affording them safe passage above the torrent of the Rio Santa Rosa.
“At the time we were building, the riverbed was quite dry, but you could see how high and large it gets in the wet season and why the bridge was absolutely necessary for that community.”
Enter Bridges to Prosperity [B2P], a social enterprise that works toward ending the poverty caused by rural isolation by building and sup-porting investment in pedestrian infrastructure. Partnering with companies like Aldridge, B2P has spent nearly 20 years connecting people around the world — small communities in Latin America and Africa — to more than 340 bridges in 20 different countries so far.
“The World Health Organization estimates that one in seven people in the world live in walking communities,” says Devin Connell, B2P’s corporate program director. “Many are isolated due to lack of infrastructure. If you have a river between your town and the main road, the river is also between your home and education, medical care, food, your livelihood.”
Several years back, a study by researchers at Notre Dame and the University of Colorado — Boulder determined that B2P projects in Nica-ragua had showed a 30 percent increase in household income for communities that got a bridge versus those that didn’t.
“To be frank, it even blew us out of the water,” Connell says. “Much greater than even we expected. And it showed us that we need to keep pushing forward in this direction.”
AGC members have been happy to help — for myriad reasons. The most obvious, perhaps, is the impact these projects have on the people who live where the bridges are built, but beyond this very positive aspect are others: hands-on building, high-level team building and the unforgettable life experience of doing all of it over a two-week cultural immersion in a place vastly different from home.
Sarah Wilson’s small contingent of B2P volunteers were queried at the airport about whether they’d been to China in the previous 14 days before arriving in Africa. This was back in February, right before the coronavirus shut down the planet.
“It was amazing timing,” says Wilson, vice president, construction management, for McMillen Jacobs & Associates, an Ohio Contractors Asso-ciation member. She and five of her co-workers, along with five volunteers from Traylor Bros., an AGC of California member, partnered up for a project to construct the Sanzara Bridge, a crossing for the Kawowo municipality in eastern Uganda.
Here, the Sipi River is always flowing, “but in the rainy season it becomes very difficult to cross, and during that time most of the children on the other side don’t go to school. The market is difficult to get to, the medical facilities are difficult to get to.”
In the past three years, three people died attempting to cross the Sipi. Ten others were seriously injured.
“We were connecting communities that really needed to be connected year-round,” she says.
Hands-on work is rare for Wilson, a 21-year industry veteran who primarily does design and management.
“My firm prides itself on having design folks who understand construction, and I’ve spent time doing construction management in the field, but doing it myself rounded out that understanding in ways I couldn’t have experienced another way.”
The tangible outcome, says Connell, is one of the most powerful parts of the experience for volunteers. “They watch the bridge get built,” he says. “Sometimes literally putting the planks down themselves.”
For Michael Krulc, among the crew who repped Traylor Bros. on a 2016 project in conjunction with the COWI engineering firm, found his experience in Panama similarly rewarding.
“Our company’s projects are vast. They take many years,” says Krulc, eastern area manager for Traylor Bros.’ underground division. “Being out in the field building things yourself — which is the reason a lot of us got into this business, but something we don’t do a lot of anymore due to the projects we work on — is just incredible.”
The two-week stint culminated in the completion of the 66-meter Chuiguiri Arriba Bridge, a game-changer for the community’s 200 families.
Carani knew a handful of people on the Aldridge team at the start of their Bolivian adventure, but five of them were strangers.
“Now we all share something. It’s more than a working relationship. You spend 24 hours a day with these individuals for 14 straight days having a related experience.”
Couple that with an annual trip — Aldridge has sent 30 employees on builds since connecting with B2P — “and you have a growing number of employees who can share these stories and experiences.”
They position it when recruiting, he says, along with other things the company does to give back.
“People say it’s the most memorable thing they’ve ever done,” says Connell. “It boosts company morale and company culture.” Carani would agree.
Several years back, a study by researchers at Notre Dame and the University of Colorado — Boulder determined that B2P projects in Nicaragua had showed a 30 percent increase in household income for communities that got a bridge versus those that didn’t.
“There are so many factors that go into engagement and retention and an individual’s decision-making process,” he notes. “We’re always trying to measure what mixture of those elements will attract the type of people who are the best fit …. Younger generations have a different expectation as to what ‘giving back’ means, and it’s important to demonstrate that it’s part of [Traylor Bros.’] culture and part of what we believe in.”
Wilson believes the projects serve as a good indication to potential hires about how McMillen Jacobs feels toward its employees and the way the company looks at the world.
“And the connections we made with the locals were really fun. I brought a Polaroid camera, and the ladies who made our lunches thought it was the coolest thing,” she says. “The principal from the school came out for the opening ceremony — she showed us how to do the local dances they were doing to celebrate …. She really expressed her love and appreciation for the team, which was amazing.”
The work in all these areas is hard. Scorching sun in some places. Daily rain and dangerous lightning in others. But in the small amount of leisure time, exploration is abundant and enriching.
“They toured us around,” says Krulc of their Panamanian hosts. “They showed us where they grew coffee, mangoes; it was neat. And they were wonderful folks.”
Though only two of his team were Spanish-fluent, Krulc says there was an unspoken language of working that forged bonds.
“You talk a little. You gesture. Everyone figures it out,” he says. “We like to work, and we could tell they did, too, and even with the barrier, we were able to do so very cooperatively. It was a good feeling.”
There are many on these projects, but volunteers agree on which is most important.
“You can see the vital nature of the bridge to keep things going,” says Carani, who took a day to hike the mountainous region around the jobsite. “It’s a simple lifestyle these people have, but it’s hard. And at the same time, it’s an incredibly beautiful landscape — mountainous, lush. What they really needed was a bridge. And we built them one that will provide years of use.”
Krulc’s experience — watching the children cross the river to get to school — was profound.
“They’d be in uniforms, looking nice, hair done, walking on a dirt road through the jungle,” he explains. “And they’d take their shoes off to cross. And do it again on the way home. And sometimes the water is deep. It’s definitely dangerous.”
He thought about his own school days, so vastly different, even for the most rural-living children, here in the states.
“Here the logistics of getting to school is easier, but many of us have financial impediments.”
So Krulc founded a scholarship for students graduating from his own high school. It was a direct result of his experience with B2P.
“So many construction firms — and other companies, too — are moving in the direction of having a business with purpose,” says Connell, who says B2P is on track to build up to 300 bridges in Rwanda alone by 2025, connecting one million people with essential services.
“Participants on projects like these have once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” he says.
Krulc’s life — and now the recipients of his scholarships — are indeed forever changed.
“It’s more than donating money or volunteering a couple of hours,” he says. “You learn a lot about yourself. It puts things in perspective. You’re doing something to help a community. And they’re with you. And you’re building it together, for them. And they really appreciate it.
And in the process, he notes, it also helps the industry.
“It lifts us up. It allows us to learn about one another. It helps us all get along.”