A vacation with a purpose

July 2010 » Web Exclusive
Rod Beadle, P.E., CFM

Many of us entered the field of civil engineering because we enjoy problem solving and a variety of technical challenges. It’s particularly satisfying when our work can provide dramatic improvements in the health and welfare of others and can sometimes even save lives.

The team from Engineering Ministries International (eMi), was invited to the DR Congo by a local church denomination that provides a wide range of medical, educational, and social services to the people of Eastern Congo . In 2002, a volcanic eruption destroyed many of the buildings owned by this group in the city of Goma , and the team’s purpose was to design a school, medical clinic, hospital, conference center, administrative buildings, and some commercial structures for the site. During its time onsite in January and February 2010, some of the team members attended a church service in Swahili, one of the local languages.

As in any project, one of the first jobs is to get a clear idea of the client’s purpose and vision. Here, the team of engineers, architects, and surveyors receives a briefing from church leaders. Translation services are being provided by a Congolese-born Canadian (center, arm raised). In the background the outlines of Mount Nyerigongo , the volcano which erupted in 2002, can be seen.

Members of the team of 12 did some of their work onsite at the church located on the property, completing preliminary designs of the buildings to be constructed onsite. Having the drawings done by fully qualified professionals from a credible organization will help the church with its fundraising work. (Rod Beadle has his back to the camera.)

The church property is located on one of the main traffic circles in the city of Goma , bordering two major streets. Some of the traffic is motorized but much of the work is done by hand labor.

Rod Beadle tested the water quality available onsite and found that while it was far from passing the standards of the developed world, it was better than much of the supply he has tested in the developing world. Here, Beadle (left) confers with the property’s custodian, who was able to show him the as-built designs for the pit latrines on the property. Beadle found this information useful for future projects where sanitary sewer service is not available.

Over lunch at a small restaurant in Goma, Rod Beadle (second from right) talks with project coordinator Greg Young, an architect now living in Calgary, Canada.

On their final day in Goma, the team gave a presentation of its plans to stakeholders in the church group. Here, Rod Beadle gives a presentation on his work, which is translated into Swahili.

One of the projects that the eMi group undertook was to bring athletic shoes and uniforms for the use of youth groups in the area. Here, young team members living in Rwanda , wearing their new uniforms, receive instructions about a soccer match.

 

During the last few years, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of participating in a wide range of projects throughout the developing world. I’ve witnessed numerous situations where people were drinking badly contaminated water. This water can be the source of many serious diseases such as cholera and diarrheal illness that afflict millions of people every year. It’s not that these people don’t know any better — they usually know what they’re drinking and they know it can harm their health — but they often have no other available options. One of my primary roles has been to identify the levels and sources of contamination and to design and install practical, effective treatment systems.

Not exactly Club Med
Call it a “vacation with a purpose.”

These trips have typically lasted from one to three weeks and involve teams of design professionals that may include engineers, architects, planners, and surveyors. We work with local and international organizations and ministries to provide professional design services in places they might otherwise be unavailable. While we get to visit exotic destinations, it’s not exactly a relaxing, soak-up-the-sun kind of vacation.

For example, in January and February 2010, I travelled to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a 12-person team of Americans, Canadians, and Koreans working with Engineering Ministries International (eMi; see www.emiworld.org). Invited there by a local Baptist organization, our assignment was to survey and design a school, clinic, conference center, library, and other facilities to replace structures and infrastructure destroyed by lava from a volcanic eruption.

We worked closely with the local ministry to understand its vision for the project. We spent a week in Goma surveying and performing design services for the new facilities and site improvements. On our final day, we presented our pre-final design to the ministry’s leadership. Upon returning home, we finalized the design and prepared a final report and plans to accommodate construction of the project.

My role on this trip was to design site grading, paving, water supply, water treatment, and wastewater treatment improvements. In testing and assessing the available water supply, we identified several sources of contamination and developed measures to ensure that a source of clean, reliable water could be provided for the project.

On trips like this, teams are frequently able to accomplish in a week what it might normally take six months to do. There’s typically close collaboration between the different disciplines, and all our energies are concentrated on a common goal.

We often encounter similar groups of volunteer medical professionals working in the developing world. They are often providing care to those plagued by the harmful effects of contaminated water. As engineers, we are in a unique position where we can work proactively by treating water supplies and sewage to prevent illness from occurring in the first place. Engineers have been instrumental in virtually eliminating deaths caused by waterborne diseases in the developed world and we can do the same thing for the rest of the world.

Benefits run two ways
While the satisfaction comes in helping others, the benefits run two ways.

One is the opportunity to apply the basic skills and knowledge we acquired in school but haven’t always applied as our careers have progressed. For many of us, the longer we work in our field, the more we move away from the technical, hands-on tasks and move into management roles. We also tend to specialize in specific areas of civil engineering.

Trips such as these provide a chance to work on some of the things that attracted us to civil engineering in the first place. Digging test holes, estimating flows, selecting pumps, analyzing soils, and testing water samples might not be glamorous, but it sure is a lot of fun.

We also get to see and work in places we might otherwise never visit. I’ve been able to work on a youth camp in Angola , a school in Central Asia , a reconciliation center in Rwanda , an orphanage in Sudan , a water project in Bolivia , and several projects in Haiti . While these may not be on the top 10 list of exotic vacation spots, I’ve been able to develop a better appreciation for the variety of people and cultures and our common humanity.

Pick your “vacation” wisely
There are many organizations that provide an opportunity to work in the developing world, but only a few that directly apply civil engineering skills. eMi is a relatively small organization run by engineering, architectural, and construction professionals with strong experience in our field. I enjoy working with people who share a common belief system and the faith element is an important consideration for me. This is not important for everyone. While eMi is a faith-based organization, team members can have any religious affiliation, or none.

Consider what a “vacation with a purpose” can do in your life. You’ll have a better appreciation for what your own life offers when you have the chance to serve people with great needs but few resources.

Rodney A. Beadle, P.E., CMF, is president of Engineering Resource Associates, Inc., Consulting Engineers, Scientists & Surveyors, based in the Chicago area. He can be contacted at rbeadle@eraconsultants.com.


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