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ND SEED gives back to Guatemalan village

Katlyn Smith | Thursday, April 22, 2010

A group of six students will be giving back to a Guatemalan village while applying their engineering skills this summer.

Notre Dame Students Empowering through Engineering Development (ND SEED), a team of civil engineering students who have been fundraising and designing a bridge for a community in Palquí, Guatemala this year.

Partnering with Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a non-profit organization seeking to fight global poverty by building footbridges in developing countries, ND SEED will finalize construction of the bridge in June.

ND SEED member Stephen Santay, a junior, said he got a positive reaction from the community when the group visited the site during fall break.

“They were very, very excited for us to be there and very humble that we were taking on the project,” Santay said. “They were very willing to help us out with whatever we needed and were very generous.”

According to the ND SEED website, the project fills a particular need for school children. During the rainy season, students cannot cross the flooded river Qebrada Palquí and have to walk an hour out of their way to reach the schoolhouse.

“In the rainy season, which is a significant portion of the year down there, the attendance at school drops by more than 50 percent,” Santay said. “So, I think that would be the main goal of our project is so that the kids can go to school to get an education year round.”

Sophomore Enrique Descamps, a native of Guatemala, said the community offered the group the head of a cooked chicken, a traditional honor, as a token of their gratitude.
Descamps said the bridge will address Guatemala’s infrastructural need, as most roads are unpaved and houses built with sheet metal and other materials vulnerable to mudslides during the rainy season.

Besides appreciation, Descamps saw a wide spectrum of the community involved in the project.

“Everyone’s willing to help,” Descamps said. “The women offered to cook for us while we stay there over the summer. The men of the community are doing labor.”

Senior Angela Medlock said the project will have a large impact for a community with limited resources.

“They don’t have running water,” Medlock said. “They don’t have electricity. This one part of my curriculum here, this one part of my life is everything to them. This bridge is going to change their lives.”

Tracy Kijewski-Correa, a civil engineering professor and advisor to the project, said students selected the bridge’s design from a catalogue of accepted designs standardized by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
Students will live in the local school, construct the bridge and teach the community how to make repairs on the bridge in May and June. Kijewski-Correa said bridge maintenance in the U.S. will serve as an example of what not to do.

“In this country, for example, we have 25 percent of our bridges in a state of disrepair because they haven’t been maintained properly, so we do a bad job of this even ourselves,” Kijewski-Correa said. “So for this particular project, we want to learn from the mistakes we’ve made in this country about leaving maintenance as a secondary thought, an afterthought until it’s too late.”

The community is currently excavating the site and building the bridge’s foundation alongside a B2P site supervisor until the students arrive.

Kijewski-Correa said the community decides whether or not to finance this labor.
“I imagine most of it they are doing it on their own time with their own free man power to get it done because they see the impact it’s going to have on their lives,” Kijewski-Correa said.

For Kijewiski-Correa, one of the biggest challenges is raising close to $20,000 for costs ranging from transportation to materials for the bridge. The economic climate and budget costs across university departments have complicated fundraising.

Kijewski-Correa said students have playeda significant role in fundraising efforts in dorms and a dinner at Five Guys.

According to Kijewski-Correa, the group needs to raise about $1,700 more to reach their goal.

Kijewski-Correa said the project allows the students, who will be fulfilling one of their engineering elective requirements, to harness their knowledge for a greater good and appreciate the infrastructure in the U.S.

“I think we are so spoiled by an amazing and wonderful life that we take for granted how much we have to be thankful for everyday until you go to some of these other countries and see how desperate they are for a simple thing like a footbridge that’s going to make it possible for them to get to other communities, neighboring communities and to have a better way of life, and we don’t think twice every time we get into our car and drive,” Kijewski-Correa said.