Lexington, KY – Harmon Parker, a Lexington native and UK graduate relocated his job, his family, and his life to build footbridges in Kenya.
"One story, one bridge I built, there were two sisters who lived on each side of the river, it was only probably 120 or 130 feet, but the river is very swift and to get to the other side one of them would have to go a long way around, and come back and so it didn't happen very often but they met on each side of the river and called across how are you today, how are your children, how are the kids' and so when we built the bridge for them, the very first people I allowed to go across the bridge was having them come together and meet in the middle, so now they can go walk back and forth."
Parker built his first bridge in 1996, and through his organization "Bridging the Gap," he has since constructed 46 bridges. Last month, CNN named Parker one of the Top Ten Heroes of 2010, and he is eligible to receive 100 thousand dollars for his organization if selected for CNN Hero of the Year.
Kelly Flynn, a senior executive producer at the network, took part in the selection process. She says she was particularly moved by one story of a Kenyan man's tragic loss. Part of which, she retells here.
"My wife just disappeared one day crossing this river and now I'm left with the children and you just see this man who's not a young man, and he's got a toddler to a teenager sitting with him that he's now taking care of because his wife was swept away by the waters, and I think if Harmon can prevent that from happening just once, then he's done a great service to the world, but he prevents things like that from happening over and over again."
The bridges are simple hanging bridges, not unlike ones seen in Eastern Kentucky, but their mission is far from simple. These bridges save lives. Rather than wade into swift rapids or the domain of crocodiles and hippos - the bridges empower Kenyans to take direct, safe routes to basic necessities. The bridges Harmon builds connect rural Kenyans to schools, marketplaces, and health clinics.
"There's not clinics on both sides of the river, some of these people live so high up in the mountains, there's only one road to get to any clinic, any healthcare, much less a hospital even further away so its very important for people to get to these hospitals and clinics, these bridges provide access to health"
Harmon's wife, Teri eagerly moved to Kenya, although initially, she had to locate it on a map. Over the years, Teri has seen Harmon build lasting relationships with Kenyan communities.
"Gosh there's so many things about what he does, and the fact that he not only builds physical bridges but he builds relational bridges, cultural bridges, the celebrations of the community are just awesome I've been able to attend some of the bridge builds it's just been an amazing experience to see him in his element and his passion of what he loves: bringing awareness to the plight of the Kenyan people who so desperately need these bridges."
The bridges are not the product of Harmon's labor alone. Every community must take the initiative to express need for a bridge and apply "sweat equity" to the construction. Villagers rally around these construction projects because they improve lives. Children giddily saunter across a bridge on their way to school, as the swift current passes below.
A woman with a sack of firewood on her back treks across to the market.
And two sisters meet halfway to embrace.
"I would like to be that bridge, if that doesn't sound so corny, to build awareness of the need. And the need is great, and the need is now."
Parker and the other nine finalists will appear at an "All Star" awards ceremony Thanksgiving night.