Bridges to Prosperity in Haiti

Six students from Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), an engineering organization at Virginia Tech, spent their spring breaks inaugurating a bridge that they have been working on for more than a year. Composed of mainly civil engineers, B2P aims to “empower third world communities through foot bridge building, thereby advancing community public works, economic prosperity, and community access to schools, medicine, jobs, and markets.”

The bridge project was started by Virginia Tech professor Dr. Bryan Cloyd, who is a sponsor of the elementary school in the village of Ti Peligre. The group of engineers working on this project successfully built a suspended footbridge on the Thomonde River. The inhabitants of Ti Peligre rely on the bridge to cross the Thomonde River to sell their crops in neighboring towns and for access to medical care and higher education.

The project began in 2009 with a feasibility study for the bridge, but the construction of the bridge was postponed until late 2010 after the Haiti earthquake earlier that year.

The majority of the bridge construction occurred during Thanksgiving Break 2010 and now the bridge is fully functional and open for public use.

“Our first trip [to Ti Peligre] was during Thanksgiving break 2010,” said B2P President Chris Cooke. “It was very engineering-driven. We started by surveying the land with the help of a few graduate students. After excavation, we added column arrangements and concrete sections. We had also worked on several designs and CAD drawings to plan this bridge, so we put those to use. Basically we got a majority of the actual building done.”

The inhabitants of Ti Peligre rely on the bridge to cross the Thomonde River to sell their crops in neighboring towns, and for access to medical care and higher education.

During their trip to Ti Peligre this spring, the group inaugurated and dedicated the finished bridge, then handed over control and maintenance to the locals.

B2P trips take a very hands-on approach to applying engineering concepts learned in the classroom out in the real world. “Since we’re all civil engineers, we put a lot of what we learned in classes like measurements, CAD, and materials to use…we would not have been able to build the bridge if not for our training in all our engineering classes,” said Project Manager Nick Mason.

These engineers were not exempt from the challenges of building a bridge in a developing country. “There were several variables we didn’t see coming while on the ground,” said Mason. “As students, we had never mixed concrete on the ground. But we used the same ratio as we had planned, and we had already tested our mixture in the structures lab. We had four Haitian men helping us, and logistics coordination was also a little challenging. During Thanksgiving break, we ended up staying an extra week in Haiti to finish up our goals for the
project.”

“The thing that hit me when I got there was their lack of development, and how it affects their everyday lives,” said Vice President Tyler Welsh. “[Ti Peligre] was not affected by the Haiti earthquake, but they still have refugees from around the country seeking shelter there.”

“But despite all the obstacles, going to Haiti was more fun than we expected,” concluded Mason.

During this trip, the group took several measures to make the bridge sustainable. “After the dedication we took a couple days to set up sustainable measures that will help the bridge last up to the designed life-span of 30 years,” said Mason. “[We] set up a local bridge committee that will perform maintenance checks and annual bridge inspections after every rainy season. We also performed a socioeconomic survey where we gathered data about the community for a future bridge database.”

Aside from a truly unique engineering experience, the students also experienced a wonderful and welcoming Haitian community. “The part that most amazed me was the simplicity of their culture,” said Cooke. “They’re a very tight-knit, relationship-based community. Everyone knows everyone, everyone shakes each other’s hand, and they look right into your eye while they are speaking to you. It was wonderful being with people like them.”

International trips like this also serve as training for upcoming leaders of B2P. “I was not really involved with B2P until after the design phase was over, but I’m really excited to become more involved, especially with the actual construction of the project,” said sophomore Kelsey Brandt, one of the six students that traveled to Ti Peligre. “I look forward to leading this effort in the future.”

Building a bridge was not the sole goal of B2P in Ti Peligre. “We also want to build a partnership with another organization, Partners for Health,” said Mason. “They helped us ship the cables down for our current bridge, and they will be a good organization to know in the future, since we’ll be working in the same country. We are also hoping to build partnerships within Virginia Tech, especially the Architecture Department, and the Department for Outreach and International Affairs.”

Now that the Ti Peligre bridge is finished, B2P is looking for other projects in and around Haiti to work on. “We’ve been talking with Partners In Health (PIH), one of the largest health care organization in Haiti’s central Plateau, and a University Kiskeya in Port-Au-Prince to help us set up this program,” said Mason. “PIH has given us some feedback that there is a large need for footbridges in the lower Artibonite region of Haiti. This is a challenging and exciting time for us as we figure out the future of our student chapter and where the next project will be. Whatever happens, we hope to continue with our momentum to make something that will not only bridge rural communities together, but hopefully bridge students from our university to Haiti for a long time.”

Aishwarya Venkat is a freshman studying Biological Systems
Engineering, and would love to travel to Haiti someday.

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Engineers’ Forum is Virginia Tech’s interdisciplinary student-staffed engineering magazine. Since 1981, we have continuously engaged students, faculty, and engineering professionals in Blacksburg and throughout Virginia. Readers anticipate our issues for the latest updates and articles regarding the achievements and initiatives of the Virginia Tech community and the engineering world beyond. Issues are published four times per year.

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