WSP USA Volunteers Build Bridge to Benefit Rwanda Villages

The new suspended footbridge provides safe, year-round passage for over 6,000 dwellers in the surrounding areas, revolutionizing day-to-day lives.

Over a two-week period in May, a team of 10 volunteers from WSP USA collaborated with Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) and residents from the Nyaruguru District of Rwanda to build the 206-foot-long Kabere Suspended Bridge.

On a typical day, around 300 residents of the Kabere and Rwerere communities, located in the Southern region of the Central African nation, crossed the Rwerere River using a small, simple wooden bridge to reach essential resources. Unfortunately, flooding rendered the bridge impassable for an average of 90-120 days a year during the rainy season, and residents had to walk two to three hours to reach a secure crossing location.

The team completed the project in just five days, setting a record for a WSP-built bridge for B2P. For the U.S. volunteers who made the journey to this mountainous region of Rwanda, “bridge building” meant much more than just constructing a river crossing to connect communities; it was also about building bridges with people whose lives will be improved by the crossing. It was more than just an adventure; it was adventure with a purpose.

“I build bridges for a living,” said William Coleman Mitchell, a bridge inspector in the Mooresville, North Carolina office who joined the firm in 2012. During that time, Mitchell has been involved with the firm’s construction of over 2,500 bridges in the U.S.

His experience in bridge building provided essential leadership for the team that helped them complete the project in less than a week. “For me it’s about taking my surroundings and having that become part of the narrative; to tell a story of the landscape and the architecture,” Mitchell said. “It’s an amazing feeling to see the world from that perspective, and inspiring to build connections in isolated communities.”

 

Check out a video of the WSP team during their time working on the bridge.

©2019 WSP USA

WSP USA volunteers who helped build the bridge in five days included (from left to right) Craig Jariz, Yvonne Choubah, Lauren Waesche, Joanna Dela Rosa, William “Coley” Mitchell, Lida Safavi, Oluseyi Olugbenle, Monika Bruzkova, Jason Robertson and John Guenther.

A Call to Action

Oluseyi Olugbenle, a transportation planner in Baltimore, brought her organizational skills to the team as its logistics manager. She was responsible for all trip arrangements to ensure every member of the team was aware of all travel requirements.

At home, Olugbenle actively seeks opportunities to provide humanitarian aid, build homes, assist medical professionals and engage local churches and community leaders. The B2P project was a perfect fit for her interests.

“I am motivated and grounded by my Nigerian-American heritage,” she said. “Looking back at my parents’ journey of the American dream, I know I need to be a voice for underserved communities.”

Craig Jariz, a water resources engineer in Orlando, typically works large-scale regional water resources projects. His ability to absorb information was also put to good use during the project.

“I read a lot, and I’m just lucky enough to retain much of it,” said Jariz, who was nicknamed “Craigopedia” by his Kabere teammates. “Sometimes it’s relevant; other times it’s just trivia, but fun to know.”

Jariz work on projects ranging from public water supply development to climate change adaptation planning. He has volunteered for Engineers Without Borders, travelling to Tanzania to work on a water supply project, and to the Dominican Republic to assist with a bridge and flood control project.

“Working on the Kabere project reinforces my commitment to make an impact,” said Craig. “It’s my pledge to take this knowledge and experience and make a difference.”

©2019 WSP USA

William Mitchell and Lauren Waesche prepare to move some lumber for the Kabere Suspended Bridge project.

Safety First

For a bridge suspended 52 feet high, safety was an important consideration, and was the responsibility of John Guenther, who served as the safety manager for the project.

“It’s not always easy to abide by the safety rules and ensure you make it part of your habit,” said Guenther, who is based in Denver where he manages transportation-related projects. “But that one extra step can mean your life.”

Lida Safavi, a civil and highway engineer in Newark, New Jersey with over 14 years of experience, enjoys surprising everyone when she shows them just how far she can push her boundaries.

She also volunteers for many nonprofit organizations, including Home Front, Habitat for Humanity, and eMi. She traveled to Mexico with eMi to help design a school for local students in the village of Puerto Morelos.

“I like to defy the odds and push the envelope,” Safavi said. “What I do for a living doesn’t define me. I take what I do and somehow figure out how I can help those less fortunate.”

Yvonne Choubah, a structural engineer, bridge designer and inspector with more than eight years of experience in the New York region, is familiar with travelling off the beaten path, visiting places like Lebanon, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

“This mission was a great experience for me,” Choubah said. “Getting to know the locals was something special. I have such great admiration for the people of Nyaruguru—the women are strong leaders who face adversities head on. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

During the build, Yvonne worked with a local woman named Judith, who she trained to cut wood. Despite the language barrier, the two bonded almost immediately. “Judith is who I want to be when I grow up,” she said.

©2019 WSP USA

WSP volunteers and local workers collaborate to prepare the support cables for the Kabere Suspended Bridge.

Repeat Performance

Monika Bruzkova, a survey project manager in Boston, brought more than two decades of land surveying knowledge to the Kabere project, as well as personal experience from last year’s build in Tugogo, Rwanda.

“We had a great team this year,” she added. “I hoped that I was able to apply my experience from last year’s project to the Kabere team.”

Bruzkova, who was born and raised in the Soviet-led Czechoslovakia, joined the firm in 2011 after more than a decade of practice in Europe and other firms in the Boston area. Her clients range from MassDOT and the City of Cambridge to large national corporations.

“Adventure is in my blood and it fuels my soul,” she said. “It’s all about learning different cultures and building connections. It’s the next best thing after a cup of really strong coffee.”

Last year when project manager Jason Robertson joined the Tugogo build, it served as a sobering confirmation that the work he and his team had done had some meaning. This year, the same message still rang true, but with more focus on people and culture.

“We’re all trying to find purpose and sense of belonging,” Robertson said. “Employees want to work for a company that values giving back to the community. The experience for me this second time around was just as impactful, except this time we really bonded as a team.”

Robertson, who grew up in Utah and became a civil and structural engineer in New York City, has worked on signature projects like the World Trade Center Towers 1, 2 and 3 and 55 Hudson Yards; but will always rank his B2P experience among his most memorable experiences.

“That boy on the cattle ranch has certainly come a long way,” he said. “For me, it’s important to learn new skills and meet new people.”

A Lasting Connection

Lauren Waesche, a 16-year traffic engineering veteran in the Baltimore office, provided service at the drop zone to ensure that the supplies safely reached their intended destination.

“Skydiving is about more than jumping out of a plane and freefalling,” said Lauren. “There’s a lot that goes into a skydive. You learn to read the winds, plan your landing pattern and pack your parachute. There’s so much to learn!”

Back home, Waesche is the general engineering consulting traffic design lead for the $9 Billion Traffic Relief Plan—the largest highway private-public partnership (P3) in North America. “I help plan, engineer and define road systems,” she said. “I make sure that roadways are designed in a safe and efficient way.”

She also volunteers for the Ronald McDonald House in Maryland, and traveled to Nicaragua on a mission trip to help a local community and orphanage.

“Whether I’m in the air pumped with adrenaline or on the ground concentrating on how to become more efficient, I’ve come to realize one thing—I’m excited about the possibilities.”

Joanna Dela Rosa, digital platforms and content lead in New York, not only provided manual labor for the project wherever it was needed, but documented all of the work in writing, photography and video.

“For me, it has been a privilege to get to know the people on this team,” Dela Rosa said. “We were strangers, but now we share an experience that will bind us for life.”

She recalled the children that made them laugh who made us laugh, and even if they did not speak the same language, they managed to communicate with through song and dance, and teaching them games while learning new ones.

“We might have built the people of Nyaruguru District a bridge, but their impact on us—individually and as a collective—is so much greater,” Dela Rosa said. “We extended our hands and in return we formed a lasting connection.”

Since 2010, WSP USA has partnered with Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that collaborates with local communities, partners and foundations, to build footbridges that connect residents to education, health care and economic opportunity. B2P has built over 300 bridges in 21 countries and trained 100 individuals in rural footbridge design and construction.

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