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SALT LAKE CITY — It's easy to take many of the basic engineering feats in American communities for granted. But something as simple as a footbridge can be a lifeline in other parts of the world. That's why Josh Sletten, a UDOT engineer, decided to share his expertise to improve lives in a remote village in Panama.
"It will be a team event," Sletten said, describing the project. "I've never done anything quite like this."
The UDOT bridge management engineer has designed bridges in various Utah communities and today manages bridges across the state. But next month he'll apply his skills to a different kind of construction project.
"The reason I got into engineering, and the reason a lot of engineers do, is to provide those basic needs," he said. In early April, he'll travel to Lura, Panama, as part of a 10-person volunteer team with Bridges to Prosperity. The nonprofit organization provides isolated communities with access to essential health care, education and economic opportunities by building footbridges over impassable rivers. Lura is a remote village that's a four-hour drive from Panama City in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
"Any kid could fall off that," the bridge engineer said, pointing to a picture of the rickety bridge they'll rebuild. The rope and wood structure sags dangerously close to the river during the rainy season. "There are a lot of tripping hazards."
Sletten and the other members of the team believe that by changing the bridge, they can change lives in Lura for generations to come.
"We want to help people; we want to provide for their basic needs," he said, describing his motivation for becoming an engineer. "So often, we forget about that in our day-to-day jobs. We are so worried about deadlines and schedules that we forget sometimes that we are here to help people meet those basic needs."
The Lura footbridge is a critical crossing for schoolchildren, the elderly needing medical care and everyone else in the rural village.
"It's dangerous. There are no safety precautions," he said. "There have been stories of people trying to cross the river when they needed to and getting swept away and dying."
The new bridge, he said, is a link to better living.
"Without that access they are just a community on the other side: completely isolated."
The American team will work with local people to build a 150-foot suspension bridge, safely above the river. Foundations for the suspension cables and pylons have already been built by local construction workers. Sletten and his team will build the towers on the ground, erect the towers, string the cables and install the deck, fencing and ramps.
"They are so excited," Sletten said after reaching out to the people of Lura. "They realize that this is going to be something they pass on to their kids, and maintain and be proud of for years to come."