By Nicole Sweeney Etter
Mike Paddock '87 '88 never turns down a chance to do the right thing.
Babies were dying. The scarce water available to La Garrucha, Guatemala, was often rationed, and what remained was tainted with animal droppings and other contaminants—a problem that could have fatal consequences.
So villagers enlisted the help of civil engineer Mike Paddock, PE, PS, and engineering students he mentored at Milwaukee's Marquette University. Their mission: to build a new water system that could capture and purify water from a spring fourteen miles away. The end result delivered twenty-one gallons of clean water a day for each person and much more: it increased school attendance because children no longer had to spend time fetching water and firewood to boil contaminated water, reduced deforestation, and lowered the infant mortality rate.
Those are the sorts of rewards that drive Paddock, a board member of Engineers Without Borders–USA (EWB-USA), to commit every spare minute to using his engineering skills to help rural communities abroad. Over the past decade, Paddock has designed and/or built more than seventy-five projects, from water systems to schools to bridges, in Ghana, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. He travels, mostly to Guatemala, five or six times a year as a mentor to student chapters of EWBUSA and Bridges to Prosperity, another service organization.
"It's become almost like an addiction," he says of his volunteer work. "This is where all my vacation goes, this is where all my weekends go, this is where all my free time goes. My wife is a saint."
Paddock also has a rather demanding day job. As a senior transportation project manager for global engineering firm CH2M HILL, he currently manages a $1.7 billion Milwaukee-area interchange reconstruction project considered to be the largest transportation project in state history.
"Mike is that rare breed that can take paper and make it a reality, and he can also teach others to do the same thing," says Cathy Leslie '83, executive director of EWB-USA. "He definitely believes in the good that engineers can do, and he is passionate about making sure we're all doing the right thing. He has a really great moral compass."
Paddock learned about global issues and community service from his father and fellow alum, Robert '62. At Michigan Tech, where he earned back-to-back bachelor's degrees in land surveying and civil engineering, Paddock volunteered to room with an international student from Panama and planned to get involved with international development work later in life. Then, at age thirty-one, he was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma.
"That was kind of a wakeup call for me. Before that, I was thinking I'd have plenty of time to do community service after I got my career in order and started a family. I now thought, 'I've got to seize the moment,'" he says. "At the same time, I picked up an alumni magazine from Michigan Tech, and there was an article about a professor, Linda Phillips."
Phillips had created a Senior Design class that put students to work on real-life engineering problems in Bolivia. Paddock volunteered to help, and soon he was on a plane to Bolivia to build a school and improve its water quality. Paddock worked with Michigan Tech students for three years before connecting with universities closer to home in Milwaukee.
The EWB projects operate a little differently from the work Paddock oversees at home: Imagine mixing concrete one bucket at a time, hauling equipment with oxen, and passing rocks by hand along a line of 100-plus villagers.
But the end results are something any engineer would be proud of. In fact, the Rio Motagua Bridge that Paddock built with Marquette University students in Joyabaj, Guatemala, was a finalist for the 2009 American Society of Civil Engineers' Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award, a first for EWB-USA.
"Even though these are small projects, they can be very technically challenging," says Paddock, whose team invented a new kind of truss for the Rio Motagua Bridge.
Often, the before-and-afters are dramatic. Paddock will never forget one scene he witnessed at the Rio Arco near Xecpup, Guatemala: An older woman reached out a hand to help her daughter and infant granddaughter, who was strapped to the mother's back, gingerly cross the three skinny logs that served as a bridge some twenty feet across the waters rushing far below. Any misstep off the path—just fifteen or so inches wide—would be disastrous. Paddock took a picture of the makeshift crossing, right before he and a team of locally trained builders built a new, significantly safer pedestrian bridge.
"I like bridges because they make a very positive impact on people. They can make a big difference in terms of access to education, access to health care, and access to markets," he explains.
Even more than bridges, schools are his first love. "I measure everything in my life by schools. For me, it keeps it real," he says. "I drive an eight-year-old pickup truck. I could get a new one, but that's two schools. I can live with the old pickup truck."
As a result of his cancer, Paddock and his wife, Cathy (Thaens) Paddock '88, don't have children. "But I like to say the kids in Guatemala are my kids," he says with a smile. And he has other "kids," too—the students he has mentored at numerous colleges, including the University of Notre Dame, Rice University, Marquette University, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, the Milwaukee School of Engineering, University of Maryland, University of Wisconsin–Platteville, Virginia Tech, and Michigan Tech.
It would actually be easier to do these projects without students, because they can only travel during school breaks and always have a learning curve, Paddock says. "But I think the concept is to build some capacity," he says. "I'm just one person, but it would be great if there would be a lot of other people doing what I'm doing. And I see that happening. Some of my past students are now mentors, so that's a good opportunity to pay it forward."
So how much can you accomplish with a team of students and just a week or two on the ground? More than you might think, and for a relatively low price tag. "A project that in the States might cost a quarter of a million dollars, we can actually accomplish with $20,000 to $25,000 of donations because the labor and design are free, and generally materials are much cheaper over there," Paddock explains.
Paddock's employer, CH2M HILL, and other corporate sponsors often provide funding for construction materials. The community abroad contributes the labor and other resources, whether it's sand from a river or lumber from nearby trees.
"They provide what they can, and it's really important that occurs because this is their project and we want them to own it, because long-term they're going to maintain it," he says.
Paddock's impact goes beyond his time in a single community. His design templates for water line crossings were distributed to all municipalities in Guatemala, and his cost-effective design for more earthquake-resistant schools has spread throughout the region.
And his reputation has also spread—something that he's not entirely comfortable with.
When Hurricane Agatha hit Guatemala, he opened up a local newspaper to see a photo of the Rio Motagua Bridge with the headline, "Unbeatable bridge." Although the hurricane did send water over the EWB-built bridge, it held up. "Sometimes people think we have some special recipe to build bridges, and so everybody wants us to build their bridges, and I have to keep telling them, we're more lucky than good," Paddock says.
Paddock is very careful not to diminish local capacity. Although Guatemalan community leaders frequently call him with requests for help, he urges them to work with a local engineer or skilled mason when they can. EWB-USA's new Service Corps program furthers that goal by providing American-trained engineers as backup for in-country engineers so funders and communities are comfortable using their skills.
Still, he doesn't hesitate to respond to the call when he's needed, as he was during the aftermath of Hurricane Stan in 2005. "It was one of the best times to be an engineer and one of the worst times of my life," he says. "I don't think I've ever been involved in anything in my entire life where I've had as much of an impact, because it was critical disaster relief, trying to put people's lives back together. But at the same time, it was absolutely heartbreaking because you could see the death and devastation."
He was digging the foundation for another bridge in Guatemala when Hurricane Agatha hit in 2010. He returned home as scheduled, only to have the Guatemalan government and a friend from a local nonprofit call him eight days later. "Michael, I need you," the friend said. Paddock responded, "When?"
"Tomorrow would be fine," the friend told him. And so, in typical Paddock style, he caught the next available flight and got to work.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.