Students build bridge to give access to food, education in isolated Bolivia

Alexandra Kohr
September 04, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – After six months of fundraising and planning efforts, the Penn State chapter of Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) traded in their typical summer vacation for an adventure to Machacamarca, Bolivia to build a suspended pedestrian foot bridge for an isolated farming town.

“When a community becomes unable to cross a river, its people often become extremely isolated and lose access to the nearby schools, hospitals and markets,” said project manager Stefany Baron, a recent graduate in civil engineering. “The goal of our project is to reduce poverty caused by rural isolation by means of a pedestrian bridge that can provide safe access across rivers during the rainy season.”

The project began nearly six months before the team of eight even arrived in Machacamarca, beginning with the selection process of the project manager and design manager, followed by the selection of the travel team in December. This particular bridge site was assigned to the group in mid-January, giving them approximately four months to prepare for their journey.

By the spring semester, members of the team met weekly to plan out the details of their bridge.

“For this project, a standard design was not sufficient, so we used an iterative process to change certain parts of the bridge – such as the size of the ramps and the number of tiers – until we met the required factor of safety,” said design manager Josh Killian, a senior in civil engineering.

Despite requiring engineering students to design the layout of the bridge, not all of the work behind the project was strictly engineering-based. To raise funds for materials and travel costs, Killian said they hosted local restaurant fundraisers, apparel sales and even a 5K race. Additionally, in the months before their trip, B2P utilized a crowdfunding campaign so that friends, family and other community members could support the project.

In mid-May, the student team left for Bolivia, the first time Penn State B2P had been to that country. On their way to Machacamarca, the team was greeted by blizzard-like conditions, weather that made traveling narrow mountain roads at night difficult, Killian said.

But the worst part for the team was not necessarily the weather but rather adjusting to the altitude difference upon arrival. The bridge site itself was located more than 12,000 feet above sea level, which meant that fatigue due to thinner air was a hindrance to the group.

Furthermore, because of the location of the bridge site, most materials had to be carried in by hand as the path was impassible by trucks. This meant that mixing concrete, bending rebar and transporting wood and steel all had to done by hand.

To get to the construction site, the team would wake up at 7 a.m. and then hike for an hour down to the site where they would begin working at 9 a.m. They would work until the sun set and then hike for another hour to get back to the community.

“This project was a little more physically challenging than many others that Penn State has done,” said Baron, who has participated in two other B2P trips. “There are days when the cold, exhaustion and craving for a nice pizza can start to feel overwhelming, but this can all be overcome by reminding each other that, at the end of the day, this is still an amazing experience where we are making a real impact on the lives of some pretty incredible people.”

In total, the bridge was approximately 45 meters long and 1 meter wide. The group finished their project on one of the last days they were there, and it is now open for the use of all community members.

Reflecting back, some of the group’s most profound takeaways involved the people themselves.

Killian remembers the picnic feast that the villagers held for the students at the end of the trip where gifts were given to the group as thanks for helping to construct the bridge. The gift of choice – potatoes.

“I personally received 16 potatoes over the course of that meal and did not come close to finishing them all,” Killian said.

Most importantly was the sense of community that impacted the B2P team during their month in Bolivia. Not only did the team come back with valuable engineering skills, but they also returned with a renewed sense of camaraderie, leadership and a deeper worldview.

“As I got more involved, I realized we were a group of students with many majors who share a passion for serving others around the world and are willing to make some sacrifices to do it,” said Killian. “There are a lot of big dreamers in our club, and I love pursuing such worthwhile goals with them.”

  • Team members painting metal yellow.

    The team members painted all of the metal for the bridge (the rebar, crossbeams and fencing) using a combination of diesel fuel and paint in order to preserve the metal from rust. They used red, yellow and green paint because those are the colors of the Bolivian flag.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Students hiking along dirt path.

    The team hiking through a potato field to the work site. 

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Two students sitting with a bowl of potatoes.

    On the last day, the team gathered with community members for a celebratory feast. Each team member was given a full bowl of potatoes. Pictured are, from left, Jules Kadien and Christopher Biesecker .

    IMAGE: Provided
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Last Updated September 05, 2018