Every engineer with whom I have worked has prided themselves on being a problem solver. Very pragmatic, very practical. Years ago on a missions trip we went to Reynosa Mexico. The work site was a Colonia which is a poor community where utilities and resources can be quite limited. This community we were assisting had roughly 35,000 people, most living in a makeshift house (cardboard, scraps of wood, outdoor cooking) and such. It was a poor, very challenged community.
The work site did not have utilities such as power or running water and it was the middle of summer. We were building a combination clinic/school/chapel for the community.
Our housing was in Mission Texas and we rode to the worksite each morning on an old yellow school bus. Our housing was an abandoned factory for making skin-care products. They had built very nice dormitories for us but, surrounding our housing were the remnants of the production operation. There was wood, metal scraps, really just a plethora of discarded material.
Enter our engineer, whose name I have long forgotten. He was a young new engineer who was working pro bono from an engineering firm that provided the engineering talent needed to build a structure with minimal power tools and volunteer talent from our church in rural Ohio.
On the first work day we all piled into the bus and headed over to site, roughly a 45 minute drive. As we pulled up to the site, the bus came to a stop on the road.
“Why are we stopping her,” said the engineer to the driver. “The site is roughly half a mile away.”
The bus driver replied, “The bridge is washed out; we need to walk the rest of the way.”
Immediately in front of the bus was a creek and with no bridge present, no traffic could get into the Colonia.
The engineer pressed a bit and said, “Wait a minute, this is how the residents get their water.” Water comes in in a large truck with the water in plastic bottles, similar to how it is delivered to offices in the United States.
“Well it washed out about six months ago. That’s how long they have been without drinkable water being delivered to their homes,” said the bus driver.
The bus driver shrugged and the engineer said to him, “wait here while I get the work started. He took everyone up the road to the work site and got the team going, there were about 50 of us. Many of the volunteers were tradesmen or builders so with minimal direction he got the project started. Then he said, “I need about ten volunteers to come back with me and work on a side project.” I volunteered, along with several others, and we headed back to the bus.
As we all climbed on the bus our engineer knelt by the creek and started sketching on a yellow legal pad, pausing from time to time to measure something. Then he climbed on the bus and told the driver to take us back to the dormitory/abandoned factory in Mission Texas. Once we got to the factory he asked the driver to back the bus up to the “plethora of discarded material,” referenced earlier and he started to pull stuff out. Wooden planks, some metal that was still serviceable, bolts, screws, other items that could be used to secure a structure. These were slid into the back of the bus, the longer items on the floor extending down the center aisle, the smaller items were boxed and stacked on the seats.
Then we all piled back up on the bus and headed back to the work site. When we got to the creek, we pulled the material off the bus. Then we ran up to the work site and brought back some tools such as hammers, a come-a-long (ratchet), shovels, wrenches, a breaking bar, a post-hole-digger, and saw.
Then we went to work. The engineer pulled out his legal pad and we dug notches into the sides of the creek where we would secure the wood. Then a network of wood across the bottom, all scraps from the factory in Texas. The planks were laid across the structure and secured into the notches on each side of the creek.
The engineer checked his calculations and our work and then we headed back to the work site.
On Wednesday of that week the water truck came by, expecting to unload by the creek and leave the water in plastic jugs so the families could come and carry back to their homes, some a fairly decent distance. The engineer, and all of us, were waiting when he arrived. The driver jumped out of his truck, and looked at the bridge. The engineer waved him across. To his credit, skeptical as he was, he climbed into his cab and gently nosed his truck onto the little bridge. With a thump the truck pulled across and the bridge held up just fine. And with that, water was delivered to the families in the Colonia.
To put this in perspective, I ran the weights of various trucks, a yellow school bus, and a commercial water truck. Averaging them all out, the little bridge built by ten amateurs and an engineer with hand tools was holding between 10 and 15 tons. And this practical gesture made a huge difference, but, without discounting “thoughts and prayers,” I would rather work with the team that can actually get in an engage. He made a difference!