Charitable engineers

Many engineers and technicians take the leap of offering their abilities up to charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), making a difference to people and communities worldwide.

Alisdair Pert (left) at Selian Hospital Charity begins at home, and many engineers make a difference by helping out in their local area in many ways or becoming involved in events that improve people's lives. But some however, take things even further by getting involved with organisations such as RedR [new window] or Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) [new window] where they use their specific skillsets to create better living conditions for communities across the globe.

John Leung had trained as a civil engineer, and decided to return to his roots after working in investment banking for a number of years. Wanting to focus on something with meaning, he decided to look at construction work. "The main reasons being that construction-related work often meant projects that could result in a tangible end product of use to people and society in general, such as bridges, hospitals, schools etc and also the skills that could be developed might give me the opportunity to assist those in need through development and / or relief work," he explains.

Since leaving the city he regularly takes part in volunteer work, and feels hugely satisfied with the difference he can make.

"I worked on a conservation project in the Amazon Basin involving the establishment of an eco reserve and was then given the opportunity to go to El Salvador to work with a local NGO on a redevelopment project involving the building of earthquake resistant housing, pit latrines and wash facilities. This was my first true experience of development / relief work and I was really bitten by the bug - the hands on nature and immediate impact that was possible, working directly with the local community - it was an amazing experience and one of my best memories."

Engineers can make a huge difference

Although anyone can make a difference if they choose to, engineers and technicians can offer specialist skills that can really improve disaster conditions quickly or give communities the chance to move forward and become self-sufficient. Engineering can offer a very broad range of experience and skills that can be utilised and developed, from traditional engineering skills through to project management and even health and safety. In addition to bettering the lives of others, these charitable engineers are also bettering themselves.

Gill Price has worked on many shelter and rural reconstruction projects, finding that she uses her engineering skills in a variety of ways.

"It's probably the project management skills that have been most significant, although I've regularly drawn on some technical skills in relation to initial assessment and project design and some practical skills in relation to project implementation," she says.

Providing power to remote areas

But you don't even have to have years of experience under your belt to make a difference, as students at Strathclyde University have shown. Awarded the IET's Princess Royal Scholarship in 2008 for their work, the last four years have seen groups of students travel over to Gambia to help provide electricity to schools and hospitals.

"This was my first charitable venture and I'm pleased to say I found the whole experience tremendously rewarding and educational," says Callum Morris.

"The changes we've made in Africa will affect a whole community, improving the quality of education for hundreds of children. Reflecting on this reassures me that this was time well spent, although I now know that there is an immeasurable amount of work still needing to be undertaken, encouraging me to do more. I've gained invaluable work experience with qualified engineers and the chance to travel a seldom-explored part of Africa putting my theoretical knowledge into practice."

Of all the engineers who make a difference, the most "gung-ho" has to be Paul Jawor. When in the UK Paul is responsible for a £3.5m special road maintenance programme in Hampshire, leading a team of five engineers and approximately 80 construction workers running 85 different construction projects. However, his main passion is humanitarian work and his creativity has earned him the nickname MacGuyver.

"I'm gifted with the ability to make things work out of things that people don't necessarily think will work, finding a way to do the job in tough situations" he says. "A lot of people think that to do this kind of work you've got to be really intelligent, a super engineer, but that's not the case."

Making a hospital in Kosovo

Paul's travelled far and wide from Angola and Lebanon to Montserrat and Zambia. Using just his mind and the items to hand he's created fresh drinking water using plastic sheeting, created stretchers from mattresses and plastic to get patients to hospital in deep snow situations and even created a hospital from large packing containers!

"I was in Kosovo after the war, trying to rebuild the hospitals," he says. "They needed some small, local hospitals - consisting of three or four rooms - rebuilt. We didn't have much material there, just the containers everything that had been handed out as shipped in."

"So what we did was to actually put two containers next to each other with a 20ft gap between and made them into a hospital. The waiting room was in the middle, the female ward on one side and the male ward on the other side."

"We put the containers there to get the building working first, and then all we did was put bricks on the outside and fill the cavity with mud, as cavity wall insulation. So we actually built a hospital out of two containers and then just built the structure of a building around it when we had time, so as to keep it running."

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