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ECU Construction Management Instructor Bryan Wheeler works on the foundation for an area that will house the new clean water delivery system he and a team of volunteers from eastern North Carolina developed for a village in San Juan, Nicaragua. (Contributed photos)

Wheeler Applies Construction Skills to Effect Change

By Chris Stansbury

Bryan Wheeler knew some things about Nicaragua he could not change. Children would still go hungry. Families would remain dirt poor.

So Wheeler, instructor in the Department of Construction Management at East Carolina University, focused on the situations he could change.

Leading a team of 25 eastern North Carolinians from the First United Methodist Church in Wilson, Wheeler applied his 13 years of construction coordinator experience towards improving the homes and facilities in poverty-stricken Nicaragua.

“The people in these towns and villages have nothing,” Wheeler said. “They struggle to find food for their families. Their drinking water supply came from a dirty contaminated creek following a rain storm.”

The residents of San Jose live in houses built from bamboo trees and use black plastic wrapping around the roof and walls to protect from cold temperatures and rain, Wheeler said.

Education is minimal; the student who performs best in class at the end of a term becomes the teacher for the next class.

A typical home in Nicaragua is constructed from bamboo trees, with plastic to keep out the elements.

When the team first arrived, they brought 100 bologna sandwiches for the children. They were stunned by the kids’ reaction.

“Not a single child took a bite of the sandwich. They thanked us and scattered,” Wheeler said.

Later Wheeler discovered that the children, ages 2 to 12, had all taken their sandwiches home to share with their families.

Wilson and his team arrived in the area Jan. 5., beginning work the very next day. “We don’t typically work on Sundays, but there was such a need…” he said, “that we all decided to jump right in and get going.”

The team renovated, repaired and painted a wing for premature infants in a 30-year-old hospital. Wheeler said the hospital conditions are much different than in the United States, with three to five patients sharing a room, regardless of their illness.

After renovations, ten hospital rooms in the preemie wing looked like new, with enough space for the mothers to stay in the hospital rooms with their babies.

The team overhauled two school buildings, a church and a church facility as well.

“We replaced windows and basically completed a full restoration process on each site, which included everything from simple repairs all the way to totally painting both schools inside and out,” Wheeler said.

But the biggest job was yet to come.

“We knew there were some things that we couldn’t change about the culture in this country,” Wheeler said. “However, when we learned they had no clean water supply, we knew something could be done.”

The team cleared out an area behind the church up on a hill and constructed a clean water supply area for the residents.

First the group built a solid foundation. “We used a shelter near the church to mix the concrete by hand and carried it in buckets to the site.

“The next step was moving these huge slabs of rock, each weighing 90 pounds, up the hill to the foundation,” Wheeler said.

Fifty of those heavy slabs were needed. Once the foundation was completed, it was ready to hold a pair of 650 gallon water tanks.

Village residents then jumped in and hand dug a 1500-meter trench from the foundation up a mountain to a clean water spring. They filled the trench with a tube that delivered the water from the spring to the water supply tanks.

Another team would soon visit the village to bring a solar panel chlorination system.

Wheeler has made two trips to Nicaragua, and taken part in 16 foreign mission trips. He said his reward comes from the faces of the children.

From Nicaragua, he remembers in particular a young girl named Maria. In a culture where most girls her age are destined for poverty, she wanted more. Maria told Wheeler she wanted to “stay in school and become an architect.”

‘That blew me away to hear her say that,” Wheeler said.Maria’s words made all his efforts worthwhile, Wheeler said, reminding him of why he applies his skills to help others.

“We all have special skills that are unique only to us,” he said. “For some it’s medicine, religion, or just a will to serve.”

“For me, it’s construction.”

This page originally appeared in the Feb. 29, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at