The children’s home was supposed to be a refuge. It was the place where children went to find safety and health.
Except the home wasn’t safe, and the children weren’t healthy. Stagnant water all around the site meant mosquitoes. Mosquitoes meant malaria. With no gas stoves, the residents cooked food using large, open fires indoors – even in the nursery.
There was only one tank of water to use for months on end, so bathing was not an option.
This is the world Katrina Myers saw as a 20-year-old honors student from the University of North Florida on a service project in Tamale, Ghana. The experience changed her life.
“It burst my bubble. I was living a charmed life,” Myers said. “Then I see these kids who didn’t have even their most basic needs met. I saw how they struggled because of it. I never even thought of clean water, until I saw them without it.”
Myers, P.E., CFM, M.ASCE, has been working ever since to help others. Today, she serves as a project engineer for Engineers Without Borders USA, and ASCE has selected her as one of the 2016 New Faces of Civil Engineering Professionals. She is perfectly suited for her EWB-USA work, having been on the front lines of many service projects around the world, including seven trips to Ghana to help the children’s home in Tamale.
But back to 2005.
Myers returned after that first, eye-opening trip to Ghana. She started taking more specialized, higher-level engineering courses in school, and her eyes opened even wider.
“I realized, ‘Oh, wow, the problems that they’re experiencing could be alleviated by engineering solutions – really simple engineering solutions,’” Myers said. “That’s what inspired me to continue to travel, to continue to volunteer, and that is what ultimately led me to Engineers Without Borders USA.”
She returned as a junior, less shocked by the conditions and more prepared to help.
“I went straight to solutions,” Myers said. “That’s when the wheels started turning. I thought ‘we can assist this community to improve its situation.’”
Myers turned her senior capstone project into a team design for the children’s home. She enlisted the help of a Peace Corps volunteer and the local engineering community.
After her graduation, a younger group of students moved in and took on the project as part of their senior design work. UNF started its own EWB-USA chapter. This also spurred the creation of a local professional chapter of EWB-USA, which worked with communities in Guatemala and Honduras on clean water projects.
All the while, Myers stayed in touch and continued the work, traveling to Ghana every summer as an engineering mentor until 2013 when the group completed the project. As a mentor, Myers worked alongside university faculty to guide small groups of students through the design and construction process of new project phases at the children’s home.
“Completing the project was bittersweet,” Myers said. “We wished we could do more, but the positive impact we had on the children gave us a sense of accomplishment. I was especially proud of our contribution to the education of the young engineers who worked on the project as undergrads. It was a truly transformative educational experience.”
Myers now works in Denver, streamlining EWB-USA’s organizational design and review processes. She is one of the first EWB-USA members to join the staff, so she brings a unique perspective to her job.
“I had been volunteering for this organization for over six years in my free time,” Myers said. “It was very exciting to dedicate my full efforts towards a mission that I am passionate about.”
She has been assisting chapters, creating databases, and developing educational resources. Essentially, she is building a framework to assist the next young engineer who, like Myers did in Ghana a decade ago, sees a problem that wants solutions.
And as for the children’s home in Tamale, it finally serves as that refuge it was always meant to be.
Thanks to Myers and her team, the home is connected to a clean-water supply. A new drainage system has alleviated the stagnant pools of water. They cook using propane stoves – no more open flames.
“It was awesome to see all those needs being met one by one over the years,” Myers said.
ASCE’s New Faces of Civil Engineering recognition programs highlight the next generation of civil engineering leaders. By showcasing young, diverse, talented engineers the program shows that engineering is an exciting profession open to everyone. Ten honorees are selected by ASCE in each of two divisions: collegiate and professional.
The honorees will be recognized during Engineers Week, which starts Feb. 21, and at ASCE’s annual Outstanding Projects And Leaders (OPAL) Gala, March 17, in Arlington, VA.