By Carol Carder
"When I go down to Haiti, they call me 'Engineer Miller.' It's a title of respect, like 'Doctor' in our country," says Craig Miller. "An engineer in a third world country can make wonderful things happen in the everyday lives of the people."
Miller and his teacher wife Jacqueline are hooked on volunteering their talents to grow an organization known as Hope for the Children of Haiti (HFC), an orphanage and school. He glows with enthusiasm as he describes more than 30 volunteer team trips the residents of Winchester, Massachusetts have either led or organized over the past seven years. He and Jacqui are so committed they even devoted the second week of their honeymoon to co-lead a mission team to Haiti! Why does he do it? "The engineering work I do here makes peoples' lives better," he explains. "But the engineering work I do in Haiti makes peoples' lives possible."
Miller's penchant for volunteer leadership surfaced in his undergraduate years at the University of Massachusetts (then University of Lowell), where he earned a bachelor's in civil and structural engineering. He served in the Student Government Association, a policy-setting body, during his junior and senior years.
Upon graduating, Miller accepted a position with the international design consulting firm STV Inc. and worked in the transportation and infrastructure group in Boston. His volunteer commitments began in 1995 when he used his two-week vacation at STV to go to Ecuador with a work team from Grace Chapel in Lexington. There, at an elevation over 13,000 feet in the Andes Mountains, his team of 12 volunteers helped design and construct a potable water distribution system for the Quichua Indians. These descendants of the ancient Mayans are some of Ecuador's poorest people farming high lands in the mountains. Prior to the team's arrival, small cast-in-place concrete reservoirs were installed at numerous locations surrounding the Andes Mountain village of Apunag. The team installed PVC water pipes to create the distribution system for the village.
As a civil engineer, Miller was in his element doing surveying work identifying trench locations for the piping. "Surveying was critical to success of this project, as water pressures within the distribution system can burst the PVC water pipe due to the extremely varied mountainous terrain," Miller explains. "It was so much fun, I decided I wanted to use my next vacation to take another trip."
Grace Chapel has sent work teams worldwide for many years. Miller freely admits he dreamed of going to Russia, China, or even Africa the next time. The following year he asked about leading a team, but the only trip needing a leader was going to Haiti, not exactly his first choice of destination. But he and his new bride Jacqui still went, using the second leg of their honeymoon after a trip to Greece. The crew worked on construction to expand the Hope for the Children of Haiti orphanage in Port-au-Prince, the country's capital. "That trip really latched on to my engineering abilities, as I was able to meet with some high officials to discuss solutions to the water problems," Miller enthuses.
Miller adds, "I was really hooked on all the needs we could meet there. As a civil engineer, I discovered so many infrastructure needs where just basic engineering knowledge would make dramatic improvements in this third-world-country." By World Bank standards, Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and is regularly ranked in the top five poorest countries in the world.
For the past seven years, Miller has taken vacation time to direct construction efforts in expanding HFC's orphanage, school building, and grounds. Under his direction, the existing orphanage facility has increased nearly six-fold with the addition of two floors. Miller also oversaw the addition of a new water cistern, installation of a new 10-kilowatt generator, enhancements to the rudimentary sanitary sewer system, and a water disposal system. The orphanage has taken 60 abandoned children between the ages of 4 and 14 off the city streets and is raising and educating them in a secure environment -- this is an expansion from six children in three years time. HFC employs a fulltime staff of 25 Haitian men and women at its 7,000-square-foot campus.
"We're breaking the cycle of dysfunction and poverty, one child at a time," Miller likes to say. "We're giving them hope with a home and an education through 12th grade. I hope these children will become tomorrow's leaders by creating a stable family, earning a living, and passing hope on to their kids and their grandkids so over several generations, things change dramatically in Haiti."
Miller's work for HFC goes beyond making trips to Haiti. Seeing his efforts, the organization tapped his enthusiastic leadership and invited him to become a member of the board of directors in 1997 and volunteer president in 1998, a position he still holds. He developed a media proposal and interested a high profile Boston TV news station in doing a human interest story on the organization in 1999. "This generated a new awareness in New England and brought in substantial new sources of revenue," he stresses. The Massachusetts Society of Professional Engineers recognized his volunteer contributions by naming the 35-year-old the 2002 Young Engineer of the Year.
A dedication for taking teams of youth and adults on mission trips to Haiti also propelled Miller to start his own engineering firm, Waterfield Design Group. "One of the reasons we started this firm was to give me more flexibility in making trips to Haiti whenever I need to go," he explains. The multi-disciplinary engineering and landscape architecture design firm specializes in transportation infrastructure development, municipal engineering and design, military infrastructure, construction management, and urban planning. The firm has played a key role on four segments of Boston's "Big Dig," the nation's largest transportation infrastructure project.
It becomes obvious that both Americans and people in less-fortunate countries alike benefit from Miller's engineering abilities. "None of us asked to be born in the United States, but we were. With our birthright come privileges and the responsibility to share our gifts with the rest of the world." He's earned the right to be called Engineer Miller.
Carol Carder is a freelance construction writer in Denver, Colorado.