Engineers cross borders, aid African orphanage

Many know that there are places around the world that are disadvantaged and in need of help. Few of us truly know how much help those places need until we go there and find out for ourselves how desperately we are needed. This is the mission of the Engineers without Borders division of UAA. Similar to Doctors without Borders, who go and bring medicine and supplies to places in need, the EWB survey a needy area and decide on what they can build to improve the living conditions for the people in that area. The UAA division of the organization consists of over eighteen students and two mentors from BP, working together to bring hope to a community that is in distress.

Their current project: Rhema Grace Orphanage.

The RGO is located near Tiko, Cameroon in the eastern part of Africa. Although Cameroon is a big tourist spot, the local community is in poverty, the orphanage even more so. The process in planning the improvements for an area is straightforward. In early 2007 a team of two students and a professional advisor go to a prospective area and watch the day to day lives of the people to see what areas need to be improved, and discuss with the orphanage leaders about what facilities are in the most need of repair and improvement. During this process, the students and mentors establish a positive relationship with the locals, allowing them to become comfortable and willing to help out.

The EWB-UAA has been working with the orphanage for over two years, helping to improve the living conditions for more than fifty children.

The current President of EWB-UAA is student Kris Homerding. “EWB is equivalent to a 4-credit class, yet we don’t receive any school credit. Members are attending school full-time and working 20+ hours a week during the semester. What keeps members actively involved is the passion this club has provided.”

The students who travel to Africa have to take some extreme precautions being in such a remote area that is known for theft, disease, illness.

“During Phase II, the club was assisted by a group of guards for the duration of the trip,” said Homerding. “Numerous vaccinations are needed just to arrive in country, as well as taking malaria medication while in country.”

- Advertisement -

Communication and demand for supplies are also big concerns.

“Designing a project from the other side of the world is a challenge. If we needed to check on the availability of certain materials, we would shoot a message to the orphanage and hope they responded promptly, or even at all, with the correct information needed.”

While the concerns may be hefty, as long as the right precautions are taken, the students remain safe.

Chuck Stillwell, one of the professional mentors from BP, has been helping with the program for nearly two years working with the students keeping track of their progress and helping them develop their project to the fullest extent.

According to Stillwell, there are many challenges in undertaking such a large operation, “[One challenge is] understanding the best way for us to help folks from other cultures to help themselves.  EWB is not an “aid” organization that simply gives “hand out” to needy people. We try to determine how best to meet others’ needs, then try to determine how the people in need can be part of the solution. finally, the solution needs to be sustainable, and last for a long time given all the other challenges facing the people in need.”

EWB-UAA has already replaced the old open flame cooking facilities, creating a new wood burning cook stove which will help reduce smoke and alleviate respiratory problems. They used bricks made from locally sourced materials in order to keep costs low and help the local vendors.

The next plan, Phase II, is to return to Cameroon in early August to install a rain catchment system to allow for cleaner drinking and bathing water, as well as create diversion ditches to prevent flooding and erosion problems. There will also be an assessment regarding what can be done for Phase III.

“The assessment during Phase II consists of a full electrical assessment of the orphanage as well the possibility of installing BioSand Filters onto the rain catchment systems for another source of potable water. The information gathered will be assessed by EWB-UAA and determined whether or not it can be carried out for Phase III implementation.”

All of these projects are sponsored by fundraisers and donations from organizations such as BP, Rotary Club of Anchorage, USUAA, and EDC Inc.

EWB-UAA is always looking for new people to help and potential members do not have to be engineering students to be a member. Students with different skills are extremely necessary to help their cause.

“These projects are geared towards providing communities with access to their most basic needs for survival. In return, members gain valuable project experience working closely with professional engineers in the community that they can take into their future careers,” said Homerding. “In my opinion, students also gain a sense of passion; something that can only be acquired through experience.”