Building Bridges in Panama

Alison beside the bridge in PanamaImagine having to wade through a river up to your waist every day to get to school. Imagine having to walk an extra mile just to reach a safer crossing point. This was the reality for the residents of Rio Grande, a small village in Panama. This summer I had the incredible opportunity to help build a 47-m suspension footbridge for this rural community.

Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) is a nonprofit organization that partners with engineering firms to build pedestrian bridges across impassable rivers in rurally isolated communities. This was their second build with my company, Parsons. When I was selected to be part of the 11-person team, I was ecstatic. Working as an environmental planner, I had never even seen a bridge being built, so I was very excited to expand my knowledge and get some hands-on experience.children from Panama preparing to cross the bridge

The team would wake up at 5:30 a.m. every day and drive to the build site while listening to music in Spanish and eating empanadas. Each morning we would see the kids cross the river to get to school, taking off their sandals. We were told this community had been promised this bridge for years and years. Last year on two separate occasions, a horse and woman nearly drowned. During the wet season the river sees consistent heavy downpours each evening, causing dangerous fluctuations in water levels.

All our equipment could be used by hand, no heavy machinery – think of it as a large-furniture-building project. In just 10 days, construction of the footbridge was complete! I am proud to say that I helped with the scaffolding, assembling and hoisting of the towers, setting sag of the main cable, fabricating and installing the cross beams and hangers, drilling the walkway boards into place, and installing the chain link fence. At the end of the build the community threw a big celebration with traditional dancing, singing, and heart-felt speeches. The whole celebration was an expression of how thankful they were that our team had finally made the bridge a reality.  Seeing the fruits of our labour and the direct impact we had on these people’s lives was an absolutely incredible feeling.Alison and peer working to construct the bridge

I came to UWaterloo with a notion that I wanted to make an impact through environmental and social change. Throughout my five years of school, I got to explore many different topics and specialities to find my passion.  There was no shortage of options within Planning – whether it be in law and policy, real estate and development, urban design, and more. I found myself looking forward to going to 8:30 a.m. lectures and learning about water and resource management and low impact development practices. After graduation, I found a job as an environmental planner for transportation projects at Parsons. In my current role, I review transit station designs to see how projects will impact storm water flows, among other design review tasks. I’m very thankful for the many opportunities UWaterloo gave me to find a job that that is both challenging and fulfilling. Opportunities like this don’t come up every day but when they do jump on them, you never know where you might end up.  

Check out the video of our adventures in Panama:

Check out the work B2P is doing:

Check out the work Parsons is doing:


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Great work Alison! :) Makes me happy to see young woman taking on jobs that allow them to build things with their own hands, it can be very rewarding, especially when it's helping those that are in need.