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'Hero' builds bridges in Kenya

Nov. 9, 2010

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Courtesy Photo
Members from a Baylor team work with locals to build a bridge in Kenya in 2005. The team worked with Harmon Parker, who founded the non-profit Bridging the Gap and is nominated for CNN's Hero of the Year.

By Sara Tirrito
Staff Writer

He's been robbed at gunpoint and had numerous break-in attempts at his home. He's contracted diseases ranging from malaria to dengue fever.

Harmon Parker has persisted through these challenges while building 46 bridges in Kenya, where he has begun a nonprofit organization, Bridging the Gap, to help communities traverse rivers filled with crocodiles and hippopotami more safely, giving them easier access to schools and marketplaces on the opposite side.

Parker, who has now lived in Kenya for nearly 20 years, persists in his bridge building, buoyed by a love for the work and a desire to save lives.

"They have transforming power, these bridges, for communities," Parker said. "That's the thing, people just don't understand it -- we all take bridges for granted. But especially my motivation is, first of all, I want lives to be saved -- lives that I'll never know about."

Parker's devotion and persistence has led him to be chosen from more than 10,000 nominees for a spot as one of CNN's Top 10 Heroes. He now has a chance at becoming the CNN Hero of the Year and winning $100,000. Parker hopes the competition can help to heighten awareness of the need in Kenya and said that if he wins, the money will go directly to Bridging the Gap.

"I'm no hero," Parker said. "I'm just a man doing what he's called to do, and it's not a competition to me whatsoever. It's already an incredible recognition and an opportunity to build awareness and share our story and the need. It's all about others -- it's not about me -- 100 percent."

Dr. Walter Bradley, distinguished professor of engineering at Baylor, and Dr. Benjamin Kelley, dean of the school of engineering and computer science, took a group of Baylor students to Kenya to work with Parker on building a bridge in 2005.

Kelley said working with Parker had a deep impact on him.

"Here we are in the middle of Africa, in the middle of a situation that is desolate and destitute, and here's the gentleman we're working with who speaks perfect English, and is the same color as we are, yet he's living among them as one of them, and ... he knows how to communicate with them," Kelley said. "He's been part of that African culture long enough that he knows how to maneuver through it and ask the right questions. To see someone in that position and that environment that would live like that when you know he has other options -- it warms your soul and makes you ask questions about how you can contribute."

Parker's organization travels to help both small, remote communities that other organizations might not try to help, and larger communities that are in need. The biggest project undertaken by Bridging the Gap was a 368-foot bridge spanning the Galana River, a waterway inhabited by hippos and crocodiles that had maimed many women in the community. That bridge took nearly two and a half years to build.

"We'll go to the few, the really marginalized people that other organizations won't even consider," Parker said. "It may be a community of just 200 people, a little village, but we'll do that, and build a 30-meter bridge or less for them, and we'll go to the large communities for 10,000. We really care about the few and the marginalized."

The organization works under a strategy that Parker developed called IPO, which requires community "initiative," community "participation" and community "ownership." Each community must initiate its project, help gather materials for its bridge, make some type of financial pledge and help in the bridge's construction.

"He has the villagers all help. He wants them to have ownership in the bridge, and if they help to build it it'll be theirs," Bradley said. "And he always makes it clear when he's there, he's there because God has sent him to do this work to serve them. He's not just there doing humanitarian work, which it is humanitarian, but it's more than that -- it really is kingdom building."

The numerous risks and challenges that Parker has persevered through in his work make him deserving of the Hero of the Year title, Bradley said.

"I think that what Harmon has done is remarkably deserving and it's deserving because he not only helped a lot of people, he took a lot of risks and paid a high price to do that," Bradley said. "There are a lot of people that'll help people, but not very many people who'll stick their neck nearly as far out as he has to do that, and to pay the price. It's not that he just took risks. He paid consequences for some of what he's done."

Parker said he hopes the Baylor family will come together to support the organization in the CNN competition. Anyone can vote at the CNN Heroes website, and can cast as many votes as they wish. The winner will be announced at 9 p.m. Nov. 25 on "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute."

"I would love to encourage everyone at Baylor, if they think we're worthy of having their vote, that they would consider voting for us not only once but as many times as possible," Parker said. "The need is great, it is huge -- people don't realize ­-- and the need is now. We don't receive any government funding for our project. It's all been done just by individuals, by churches, by small companies, couple of corporations, neighborhood teams. That's the way we've been building bridges in the past, so this CNN opportunity hopefully will launch us to another level."