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Building a bridge to a better life

Ralph Salamie leads engineer team that transforms a city in the jungle


A group of school children was passing by when the youngsters were invited to be the first people to cross the new bridge of Esquipulas in Nicaragua.

Ralph Salamie has been building bridges for 35 years but never like the one he recently completed in Nicaragua.

The Lake Oswego resident has been an engineer for 16 years with the Kiewit Corporation, one of the largest construction firms in the world, and he is used to working with only the finest suspension bridge building equipment, such as he is now using to help build the Portland-Milwaukie Bridge for TriMet. The bridge in Nicaragua had to be built in a jungle.

“It was a very poor rural area,” Salamie said. “There were impassable streams and creeks. We’re really spoiled with the resources we have, so it was an interesting challenge. There were no cranes, only a few hand tools. We had to be creative.”

Yet building a bridge in a poor country was actually a dream come true for Salamie. He had long been aware of Bridges to Prosperity, an organization dedicated to ending the rural isolation that dooms so many developing nations to poverty. Julia Anderson, one of the Kiewit engineers who served on the trip, said a speech given a year and a half ago by Avery Bang, Bridges to Prosperity CEO, proved to be a great motivator.

“She is very passionate, very inspiring,” Anderson said. “Avery inspired our organization to get involved.”

Bang said, “As an industry that focuses on engineering and construction, we can leverage our expertise to help folks that are drowning in rivers, can’t get healthcare or can’t get to school. We can have a huge impact on developing countries.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTOS - Ralph Salamie and his fellow engineers proved they did not need high tech tools to build a bridge when they went to the jungles of Nicaragua.

The town of Esquipulas certainly fits this description. Two rivers isolated the community from medical care, job opportunities, markets and the school that served educational and community needs for six months of the year due to the intense rain season.

When Bridges to Prosperity offered the opportunity, Salamie jumped for it, and he received outstanding support. Tom Skoro, his boss at Kiewit, put up the money for the expedition, and Salamie went about recruiting the nine bridge engineers he would need for the job. He was stunned by the response.

“There was room for nine, and we had 44 volunteers,” Salamie said. “That was pretty incredible.”

Their tools were few, and the weather (95 degrees) was way too hot and humid. But in seven days the Kiewit engineers built a bridge that will utterly change the quality of life in a jungle town.

“Our team adapted and kept going,” Salamie said. “Our engineers were not used to doing the work themselves, but it was a treat to get our hands dirty and do the physical part of building a bridge.”

Bridge builders were never more popular.

“At first we had a lot of inquisitive people,” Salamie said. “They were very excited. Our plan was always to have the community do most of the construction. One group would show up every morning and work with them on learning building skills. The ladies in the community cooked for us. Mostly it was varieties of beans, rice and cabbage. I haven’t had any since. Young children were there every morning, and they helped us unload trucks and do whatever they could to help us.”

The last day was a fun time for all. A ceremony was held upon the completion of the bridge, and plenty of local dignitaries showed up to give speeches.

Ralph Salamie addresses the crowd at the ceremony to commemorate the building of the bridge. Salamie hopes it is only the first of similar projects he will work on in the future.

“It was quite touching,” Salamie said. “I didn’t understand how the bridge was so important to them. There was so much excitement.”

“It was truly a rewarding experience. It was very challenging as well,” Anderson said. “Bridges to Prosperity is a great cause. Building that bridge is something we won’t forget, for sure.”

Salamie had helped change the lives of some Nicaraguan people, and his own life was changed, too.

“It was definitely a life-changing experience,” Salamie said. “I now have a different appreciation of what it means to be poor. The thing that struck me was how happy these people are. They’re happy with what they have. There is such a need. There are so many ways we can make their lives better.”

For Ralph Salamie, one trip like this won’t be enough.

“This was our first project with Bridges to Prosperity,” Salamie said. “Our company is enthusiastic about doing more.”

For more about Bridges to Prosperity, go to the website bridgestoprosperity.org.

The finished bridge is a thing of beauty. It took seven days of getting dirty by a group of Kiewit Corporation engineers.




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