Improving Lives as a Way of Life

Susan K. Barnett, an Emmy-nominated investigative journalist, (ABC News PrimeTime Live, 20/20, and Dateline NBC), turned her attention to strategic media and advocacy for nonprofits as the founder of Cause Communications, with a particular passion for global health and water.

Recently, she traveled to Ethiopia with Village Health Partnership, a Colorado-based NGO seeking to improve maternal and child health systems. There, she met two long-time ASCE members now working with Engineers Without Borders – Mike Paddock and Gerard Dalziel.

Susan shared with ASCE News the following remarkable first-person account of that trip, their important work in Ethiopia, and the stories of two inspiring ASCE members.

Susan Barnett

I found myself in the back of a Land Rover with two civil engineers in the middle of rural Ethiopia. To say life sometimes really hits unexpectedly is an understatement. But it’s the most apt description of the lives of Mike and Gerard.

At 31, Mike Paddock was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It had spread to his bone marrow and he was given three to six months to live. “It was harder on my family than [on] me,” he told me two decades later.

Finding himself quite unexpectedly in full remission, he and his wife, Cathy, plotted the securing of their future so that they could let Mike loose on the world. And that is how Mike Paddock, a civil engineer who ran multibillion-dollar freeway and expressway projects in Wisconsin, became a full-time volunteer engineer four years ago, traveling to some of the most impoverished and devastated places on earth to help rebuild after natural disasters, conflicts, and famines.

“I do this because there may be no tomorrow,” he told me as we bumped along on the 12-hour drive, adding, “and you gotta marry a saint.” When he’s back home in Milwaukee, Mike’s 8-acre backyard is filled with experimental water projects, geothermal and solar energy systems, rainwater catchments, filters, and composting devices. He’s threatened to get a herd of goats, but Cathy put her foot down, knowing she’d be tending to them while Mike was away on his many trips with Engineers Without Borders USA, Bridges to Prosperity, miscellaneous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and as a consultant to the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development. And while organizations sometimes pick up his travel, he won’t take a penny in pay.

He recently logged his 20,000th hour of volunteer engineering service, which began 20 years ago when he read about an international student program in his Michigan Tech alumni magazine. He offered to help and within six weeks found himself in Bolivia, helping student engineers build new schools with water/sanitation/hygiene (WASH), facilities that dramatically improve student health and help keep them in school. They also bring wastewater treatment to the broader community. This water work is life-saving work. Health, education, poverty-reduction, and productivity are impossible without access to safe water and sanitation.

Back from Bolivia, Mike learned that Marquette University students were designing and building bridges in Guatemala. He was off again and has been volunteering with Bridges to Prosperity for 12 years now, making Guatemala practically his second home and incorporating WASH into his work there.

Even before becoming a full-time volunteer, he was spending 12 weeks a year (vacation plus unpaid leave) on overseas volunteer assignments.

Maternity waiting area in Ethiopia. Women routinely give birth in facilities without adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene. It’s dangerous for both them and their vulnerable newborns. PHOTO: Haik Kocharian

But back to that Land Rover.… I was traveling with Mike and fellow engineer Gerard Dalziel earlier this year as a volunteer with Village Health Partnership, VHP, whose mission is to improve maternal and child health systems in Ethiopia.

But Ethiopia is hardly alone. Around the world, the lack of WASH in health clinics and hospitals is appalling. A 2018 study of 78 low- and middle- income countries found 50 percent of healthcare facilities lacked piped water, 33 percent lacked basic toilets, and 39 percent lacked soap.

I had come to Ethiopia to learn more about the impact on those most vulnerable – newborns and pregnant women. (Meet one beautiful young mom living a preventable tragedy; I’ll never forget her.) Mike and Gerard, both traveling with Engineers Without Borders USA, were there to evaluate and advise on a number of potential WASH projects in a healthcare facility.

Mike clambers up a clever water tower operated by gravity and bicycle parts. PHOTO: Susan Barnett

I saw firsthand Mike’s kid-in-a-candy-store thrill at bringing water to people. When he dons his black work gloves and fishing cap, he’s at his happiest, though he’ll often say “Wasted water makes me crabby.”

But I never saw Mike crabby.

Maybe that’s because I saw him chalk up his 53rd, 54th, and 55th well repair during various trips to Ethiopia. Sustainability is a massive issue. There are, in fact, uncountable broken, nonfunctioning wells, water pumps, and sinks across the developing world because, too often, well-meaning charity projects lack plans to train and fund ongoing maintenance. So a water project becomes a nice photo op with thankful villagers and a story to tell back home, but 50 percent of these one-off projects fail. Larger-development NGOs and government projects face similar challenges with disrepair. Mike told me that many of the pumps he’d fixed are sitting on veritable swimming pools of water but when water no longer comes out, communities assume the well has gone dry. Sustainability means having committed local leaders, trained people, and funds to keep systems running after they’re installed.

I linked up with the two engineers one afternoon (at yet another healthcare facility with a “dry” well that was actually a broken pump), only to find Mike scrambling up a 15-foot-tall water tower. This was the unexpected highlight of his trip. The 3,000-liter tank was perched atop the tower and cleverly operated with repurposed bicycle parts. It required no electricity, relied on gravity, and never broke down. For five uninterrupted years it had reliably provided water to a local café and hotel where water was otherwise scarce. Mike examined the perfect welds like one would a sculpture, but what really blew him away was its inventor. A 32-year-old engineer with a clear sense of purpose, named Minaluhi. But Minaluhi’s life could have – and frankly should have – turned out much differently. At 2, he contracted polio.

Mike had to meet him.

Minaluhi casually greeted us, leaning on a single crutch as Mike burst into his well-ordered workshop. He had a pronounced limp but all other movements were smooth, and lent him an air of confidence. Minaluhi showed us many inventions, including a way to open a safe remotely using a cell phone. When Mike asked if he considered himself an engineer or inventor, he smiled and answered with an impressive command of English, “An engineer just builds the ideas of an inventor.” Mike smiled back.

“Where do you get your ideas?” Mike asked.

“The polio trained me how to solve problems,” said the inventor to us all. “I see problems and I want to fix them.” He said that as a child he’d see things other children could do and he could not, and he would devise ways to overcome. “Polio has taught me to never give up, to keep looking for another way.” You could see how much his six employees respected him.

Back in the Land Rover, Mike’s ever-animated manner was suddenly subdued.

“Pretty humbling, isn’t it?” I asked him.

“Yeah, that’s the word for it,” he said quietly.

Being with Mike is pretty humbling. Our trip took place over Christmas and New Year’s this past year. Mike had also been in Dominica with EWB-USA over Thanksgiving after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. His having missed so many holidays, I had to ask him, “Why?”

“I’m here for some sort of reason and I have gifts I can put to use to help people. Later, there will be time to do other stuff.” And Cathy, his wife – how did she feel about him being away so much? He knew her response by heart: “’I don’t know how to provide WASH to those in need,’” she’ll say, “’but I can lend them Mike.’”

If Mike went from gregarious to subdued, Gerard, I was to discover, would be the opposite. We didn’t know it, but Gerard was holding a secret throughout our trip. So all I really knew about this quiet engineer was that he was on staff with Engineers Without Borders USA and always had a clipboard in hand and camera around his neck. One evening, sitting in the bar after another long day, I got up the courage to ask him for his own story.

Gerard opened his account with the first chapter of Moby-Dick, “Loomings,” which was definitely not where I’d expected him to start.

He told me that until 20 years ago, his life had revolved around mountaineering. Around how many mountains, how often, and how high. Then one day, as he was walking to Base Camp on the North Side of Everest, in Tibet, he found himself seeing beyond the challenge of the mountains while visiting the monks at Rongbuk Monastery. “The people came into [my] focus,” he told me, “perhaps for the first time: the monks, nuns, shepherds, and farmers surviving at 17,000 feet.” Moby-Dick, chapter one: Gerard’s “looming.”

Mike with Minaluhi.
PHOTO: Susan Barnett

“From a vague sense of dissatisfaction with just climbing mountains, I realized what I really cared about was the people.” And that would lead to a change in his fate.

I found myself sitting in front of an engineer of poetic eloquence, depth, and purpose.

Gerard left Tibet and went on with life under a familiar narrative many of us share. Married, divorced, 25 years as a civil engineer, burned out. Then, thinking back to that long-past time in Tibet, he decided to quit his job. With $20,000 in back vacation pay – because of an eternally delayed vacation – and having seen the plight of the Tibetan people, he decided he was going to “do his part.” He wound up in McLeod Ganj, India, the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan Government. “I showed up without a plan or a clue,” he readily admitted.

His Tibetan landlord connected him to a group of roadwork engineers, with whom he volunteered for three months repairing roads for the Border Roads Organization. When the snows shut down the work, he taught English as a second language. As he methodically taught proper grammar, as one could reasonably expect an engineer to do, his students began to disappear, and by the end of the course all had quit save for a group of nuns and monks.

He found himself “surrounded by beautiful round, shaved heads crowded around and trying to learn English, to communicate for their government in exile in McLeod Ganj.” Moved by their dedication, he realized something: “Without an organization, I’d have some, but mostly limited impact.”

So he returned home after six months in India. He would try again, but with a better plan.

This time he took a corporate engineering job that put him in charge of coordination with one of the firm’s charity partners, Water for People, which works to develop safe water and sanitation. Water for People first sent him to Malawi.

At this health clinic, Gerard works with a town water technician to fix a broken pump thought to be a dry well.
PHOTO: Susan Barnett

“I fell in love my first night. The heavens opened up and the rain hammered on the corrugated roof and down the gutters.” It was the beginning of the monsoon, and in two weeks the corn shot from two inches to two feet. “I witnessed life return to Malawi. It was my birth and my introduction to Africa.”

For eight years, whenever he could, Gerard volunteered on his own time and dime. “I can do calculations, reports, and sit in front of a computer. I’ve done that for years. I was thirsty for physical labor,” he explained. So taking a second sabbatical, he wound up on Cebu Island in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record. He spent a month working 15-hour days bending rebar, laying block, and mixing concrete – helping to rebuild homes.

At that point, Mike, who’d joined us in the bar, interrupted.

Mike: “Were they concrete block homes or wood?”

Gerard: “In the Philippines you can do both.”

At which point a protracted conversation about rebar ensued. I ordered another beer.

Of the 16 healthcare facilities we would visit during our three-week trip across three regions of Ethiopia, not one had adequate water, sinks, or toilets. Water is the foundation of all life … and at the crux of a deadly global health crisis. It’s shocking to see, in the 21st century, dedicated healthcare workers in hospitals and clinics every day, trying to do their best without water.

In developing countries, it’s not surprising that nearly one in six patients contracts an infection during hospitalization. One doesn’t need to think any further back than the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which took over 11,000 lives, cost billions of dollars, and put the world on edge. One of the chief reasons Ebola spread so swiftly was that family members touching the sick and deceased couldn’t wash their hands. The lack of WASH was also a key reason Ebola was 103-fold higher in healthcare workers in Sierra Leone than in the general population, 42-fold higher in Guinea health workers, and was how Liberia lost eight percent of its health workforce. And as it turns out, that’s exactly where Gerard traveled next. Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak.

Two donkeys are a sole source of water, making 20 trips a day from a dirty river to supply water to a healthcare facility in rural Ethiopia.
PHOTO: Haik Kocharian

The rebar conversation over, Gerard picked up his story in the Philippines. “I was sitting in the gate area waiting for my flight back to California, and I received an email blast from Engineers Without Borders looking for volunteers to work with Kings College Hospital [based in London] in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was the middle of the Ebola outbreak and the emergency response was in full gear. The central need was that the existing treatment spaces were becoming unsafe and affecting treatment. On the nine-hour flight from the Philippines to California, I decided to go.”

Was he concerned about safety?

“Yes, I’d have been crazy not to be. But the central truth here was, they’d reached out to five or six international engineering organizations and gotten just two volunteers and I was the only one who could go immediately. I flew to Sierra Leone. For the next seven months I designed a TB clinic, an oxygen factory, and an Ebola red-zone clinic and the triage area out front of the hospital. People have asked me if I was afraid. The answer was not much, I had a job to do.

“Having been through that, corporate America held nothing for me, to be perfectly frank. Working hard to get some VP his bonus after what I’d seen and done? Not happening! So I quit.

“If you walked the journey I’ve walked – we’re the product of our experiences – you’d be working on water and sticking your head in toilets, too.” His passion now sprang freely. “Everything I’ve done has been about water and toilets and poop. Water and people. Fixing wells. Applying 35 years of engineering knowledge to use, to retain, and to understand water. I’ve gained a greater understanding about life from water, in a visceral sense.”

Mother and child in Ethiopia at a health clinic with no water. PHOTO: Haik Kocharian

A job opened at Engineers Without Borders USA, that of Program Engineer in International Community Programs. That’s where Gerard works today. “Water in America is taken for granted. Clean flowing water – when it comes out of a borehole or a pump – it’s like diamonds. It’s a revelation!”

“To go back to the very beginning,” Gerard finished his story back at Mount Everest, “what I care about are the people. Where I pull my energy from are the women, the children … the old priest we saw yesterday. They’re beautiful.”

But his story didn’t end there. It turns out Gerard is very much a product of his experiences, far more then we knew. He’d kept a secret from all nine of us as we jounced along those Ethiopian backroads. Once back in the U.S., he sent us an email, wanting to explain a withdrawn demeanor. His mother had passed away while we were in Ethiopia. “Mom was a nurse in Venezuela after the war and she would have wanted me out there continuing her good work.”

And that is exactly what he did.

Get involved

Of course not everyone can dedicate as much time to volunteerism as Mike Paddock and Gerard Dalziel, but Mike and Gerard hope the engineering profession is ready to join the ranks of the medical and legal professions, which have longstanding cultures of pro bono work dedicated to those in need.

Volunteer opportunities are increasingly better organized and more flexible. ASCE regularly updates a list of volunteer opportunities. In 2014, ASCE and EWB-USA partnered with the American Water Works Association to start the Community Engineering Corps, gathering civil engineers and other technical experts together to assist underserved communities in the United States.

“I can personally attest that the need is high for our professional expertise,” Mike said. “The lack of engineering experience has been shocking. Communities are hungry for experienced engineering assistance.”

Mike, a member of ASCE for 35 years and a member of EWB-USA for 14, has volunteered his services on five continents over the past 20 years, assisting refugees in Ethiopia, providing water to healthcare facilities in Central America and Africa, inspecting and repairing bridges in Central America and Haiti post disasters, and assisting the United Nations’ response to hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Gerard is a longtime member of ASCE, a member of EWB-USA for five years and on staff for two. His volunteer work spans 15 years. Gerard says, “Much of our work is way off the beaten path, but it will be some of the best work you do in your life.”

With the hurricane season upon us, they say now is the time to get training and prepare to assist those who are going to need water, housing, roads and the engineering expertise to get them in the months ahead. Hurricane recovery is just one of the many places engineers can make a difference. Ultimately, Mike says, “We as the engineering profession need to recognize that it is not our choice  but our obligation to protect the health and safety of the public, especially the most vulnerable, in their time of need,” adding, “As an engineer, you will never have a more rewarding assignment.”


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  1. I’ve known Mike for 8 years and working with him and known him as a multi-talented and knowledgeable engineer and problem solver and great leader and most of all is one of the most unselfish and caring people I know.

  2. Like Mike I have volunteered to work for VSO Uganda as Private Sector Engagement Specialist recently after my retirement as Professor of Civil Engineering.
    without salary.

  3. Love the article, love the stories, and very impressed with the positive impact on people…
    April Lander, ASCE Region 10 Governor


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