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Simple bridges radically improve Kenyans' way of life

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Bridging the gap
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Harmon Parker is transforming Kenyan communities by building footbridges over perilous rivers
  • Many people in rural Kenya still fall victim to flash floods and predatory animals
  • Parker on his current bridge project: "This is their Golden Gate"
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Editor's note: CNN Heroes received more than 10,000 nominations from 100 countries, and a Blue Ribbon Panel selected the Top 10 CNN Heroes for the year. Voting for the CNN Hero of the Year continues through November 18 (6 a.m. ET) at CNNHeroes.com. The winner will be announced at "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute," which airs Thanksgiving night, November 25, at 8 ET.

(CNN) -- Harmon Parker is using his masonry skills to save lives. Since 1997, he has built 45 footbridges over Kenya's perilous rivers, protecting people from flash floods and predatory animals. The bridges also connect isolated communities with valuable resources.

Below are Parker's thoughts on being named a Top 10 CNN Hero.

CNN: Where were you when you got the call that you'd been selected as a Top 10 CNN Hero?

Parker: I was in a grass-roof banda in West Pokot, where I'd been working on a new bridge project. I was staring at a bat hanging from the ceiling and listening to a rat run around on the floor, trying to fall asleep. It was at that moment, 10:18 p.m., when my cell phone rang. It's very interesting because I normally do not have cell phone reception in this area. ... I thought it might be my wife, so I answered the phone.

I was surprised to hear a man's voice. He introduced himself and said he wanted to share some news with me, so I said, "Fire away." He then told me he was happy to say that the CNN Blue Ribbon Panel had selected me to be one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes for 2010.

To say I was excited doesn't begin to describe my first reaction. My heart was pumping hard from the adrenaline rush, and I found myself repeating, "You have to be kidding, you have to be kidding!"

So there I was, alone, in the middle of the African bush, and a very nice gentleman from New York is telling me that Bridging the Gap's story was going to be aired on the CNN Heroes tribute in [Los Angeles, California] on Thanksgiving evening. Sleep eluded me for the rest of the night, but who needs sleep when you've just been told that you're a Top 10 CNN Hero?

To be honest, I'm still processing it all. I keep thinking, "Harmon, this is CNN for heaven's sake; you know, Anderson Cooper, Ted Turner and all the others." It's unbelievable. Sorry for the cliché, but I am incredibly humbled and honored by this recognition. I have only seen one CNN Heroes tribute show, and I was very moved by the amazing people who were being honored. To think I will soon join this prestigious family of Heroes is beyond my wildest dreams.

CNN: What will this recognition mean to Bridging the Gap?

Parker: This recognition will be a venue to tell the story of the millions of marginalized people around the world who suffer greatly due to the dangers that rivers pose. It's for them. I hope this story will inspire other people and organizations to start bridge-building programs like I have done. I also hope this will increase our financial resources so that Bridging the Gap can hire more staff and be even more effective.

CNN: What do you want people to know most about your work?

Parker: I want people to know that my work is saving lives by providing safe access over perilous rivers. Our simple bridges are incredibly effective and helping poor communities in so many ways. Bridges are vital for health, education and commerce. Bridges are beautiful!

I am writing from a bridge site in West Pokot where four people, sadly, drowned earlier this year. I wish all of you could see this setting, hear the sounds of rural Africa and meet this very happy community that I'm serving. The scenery is breathtaking. I can see children mirrored in my computer screen standing behind my chair as I type under the shade of an Acacia tree -- children who will no longer have to worry about drowning in the river they paradoxically depend on as a source of life.

When I arrived at the bridge site four days ago, I was surprised to be welcomed by more than 300 people, dressed in their bright traditional attire, singing and dancing as though it was the bridge-opening ceremony. This is another first for me! In all the years I've been building bridges, I have never been received with such enthusiasm that stems from grateful hearts.

The 42-meter bridge that the community and I are building together will link schools, medical clinics, churches and a market center. I was told by an mzee (old man) that more than 150 people have drowned at this crossing since 1965. My typical motivational speeches to work hard were not necessary in light of this community's history and the memories of loved ones lost.

I can't describe how much this simple bridge means to these people. It's their Golden Gate.