This post was written by Elizabeth Fleming, a Structural Engineer at HDR and a participant in the HDR Foundation’s service-learning trip to Nicaragua in May 2017 with Green Empowerment.
Have you ever thought about what a week without electricity would feel like? A year? A lifetime? How about trying to calculate the amount of water you use in a day like some people count calories? How much would that water weigh? How would it feel carrying that in five gallon buckets one kilometer on hilly dirt roads?
As engineers we’re in the business of crunching numbers. All day we are creating calculations, estimates, budgets – justifying the designs we imagine. We can calculate complex geometry for roadway alignment, or the density of rebar in a reinforced concrete foundation transforming a sea of numbers into results tabulated in concise tables.
While we are good at dealing with all these numbers, it is easy to lose track of the real meaning behind them. Our end numbers are people. How many people would lose power if a substation was out of service? What’s the amount of people crossing a bridge to get safely home to their family after a long day of work?
For ten days, I worked with fourteen other incredible volunteers in Nicaragua to create our own numbers: eight hundred and fifty community members with clean water, forty families with latrines, two schools with gardens, and fifteen families with solar panels installed. Overall around 1100 people were affected by the work we did in ten short days with the grant provided by the HDR Foundation to Green Empowerment. And that’s only half of the money from the grant.
It’s easy to recite back the numbers and quantify what was completed. I could rattle off statistics on poverty levels in Nicaragua, average time spent collecting water, or overall education levels that explain why this work is so important. The problem is numbers usually can’t paint the full picture.
So here is my full picture. I signed up to go to Nicaragua after connecting with a bright, enthusiastic coworker from across the country, Chris Baker. Chris to me epitomizes what it is to be an engineer. He’s curious, kind, energetic, and passionate about helping others. Personally, I had wanted to go on a service trip for some time, and have a real love of Latin America, so the trip to Nicaragua seemed ideal.
In the months leading up to the trip, Chris organized Skype meetings to go over different aspects of the trip like the culture, technology, and the non-profit. I dutifully attended all of the meetings, picking up useful information, but not fully processing what I was about to embark on. The chaos of work, family, and my life in New York continued as our departure date quickly approached. All of a sudden I was actually on my way to Nicaragua, not just talking about it.
Arriving in Nicaragua and the days that followed are a blur of memories. I remember the wet heat of the country enveloping me from the minute I stepped outside the airport at Managua. Our bus became a second home, transporting us through the lush green mountainous countryside from campo to campo. Dirt and sweat mixed into everything, and forced me to quickly get past my hesitation of bucket showers after a long day working. Each day we worked hard in the bleating sun while trying to finish laying out pipe for a water system, or digging a garden. Large shared lunches prepared by families in the communities we were working in became a restorative break from work as we swapped laughter and stories of the day thus far. We timed how quickly we could construct a latrine, getting through them with the mentality of just ONE more, so we could make sure all forty were complete. The first house we installed a solar panel on, doing all the wiring and then getting to flick the switches and see it actually work, was unreal.
We achieved so much in a short period. In every campo we worked in there was an outpouring of support from community members that made it all possible. The warmth and kindness of the villagers and our group was overwhelming. By the end of the trip my shoulders ached, my stomach felt queasy (you can only eat so much rice and beans), and the smell of us and our bags made getting on the bus a game of who could avoid going first. I had spent ten days in a foreign country with people who up until then had been strangers, totally outside my comfort zone, my world, my reality. But you know what? It was absolutely incredible.
It’s hard to convey through words the experience of having a stranger welcome you into their home; spending the early morning hours chopping onions with them to go with the fresh eggs that were laid by a chicken inside the house, struggling to piece together complete conversations with a language barrier, but always having a large pig come bumping through the kitchen at just the right moment to bring comic relief. A picture of the mountains behind the house where I brushed my teeth and used the latrine doesn’t do justice to illuminate how it felt to have the early morning breeze hit my face and watch the way the wind moved through the trees. Trying to sleep with a symphony of animals singing at all hours can only be experienced. And I certainly can’t easily express the depth of comradery built between coworkers from across the country, after just a couple days working hand-in-hand in the mud. I am completely humbled by the families we stayed with, and everyone else I met along the way.
One memory that stuck out from the trip was playing a simple game of tag with my host family’s youngest son, Esteben, and niece, Diana. The two adorable kids had taken some time to warm up to me, cautiously testing me. One night we danced as weird as possible to Spanish music. Another morning Esteben was determined to teach me how to properly spin a topper. There is something with children – an innocence and joyfulness that makes them effortlessly cross any barrier.
On the last night staying with the family, Esteben pulled out a broken water gun from somewhere in the house. After some pantomiming I understood that we would play a hybrid game of hide and seek / cops and robbers. I took the water gun and waited for the two kids to hide and yell “Ya” to signal they were ready. While the house was small, the kids were too, tucking themselves behind doors and in crevasses. The power move was to try and navigate around the house in the dark to surprise attack from another door. I successfully used this tactic to catch Esteben and Diana off guard, putting them into fits of laughter and making us play again and again.
After a few rounds of me chasing, Esteben finally caught me and took control of the water gun. Diana and I hid, exchanging knowing looks of how we wanted to divide. In the competitive spirit and joy from playing with the kids, I did a backward loop around the house after Esteben had gone the other direction, hoping to sneak up on him. Dashing in the dark as quietly as I could, I turned the corner around the back of the kitchen only to forget about the massive mud pile, where the house pig often hung out, waiting for me. In the darkness I just felt the ground squish beneath me, and could quickly feel the cool mud mixture seeping into my sneaker. Of course, just as I continued sinking into the mud, Esteben rounded the corner and excitedly tagged me.
There I was ankle deep in thick brown mud, standing outside the kitchen of a home in rural Nicaragua, laughing with Esteben and Diana, happy as can be. We could play at night with the lights powered from the solar panels. I could attempt to rinse off the mud with the clean water piped to their home from a water system installed in the village. And when the laughter became too much that I had to relieve myself, I could use the latrine built behind the house. All of these simple joys that we take for granted, made possible to this family through the work of Green Empowerment, and through the donations from people like HDR employees.
This is just one story from a mosaic of beautiful stories from this trip and others that coworkers throughout the company passionately work on. When people ask me why I am an engineer, why I’ve stayed with HDR, what is my WHY, it is this.
Thank you to the HDR Foundation for providing a grant to Green Empowerment and enabling a group of employees to step outside the comforts of their own world and help change other peoples’ world. I encourage anyone interested to seek out these opportunities and cherish every memory you collect along the way.