Engineering a Community

Randolph-Macon students, faculty, and community members make a difference for a Guatemalan Village

Students and volunteers work on the difficult project of digging a drainage ditch

Schools in the Sullivan Foundation network tend to be all about learning through community and action, taking education beyond classroom walls and into the world. Randolph-Macon College excels at providing students these life-changing experiences. One group of students—those enrolled in Professor James McLeskey Jr.’s course, Engineering for Developing Areas, got just such an experience in 2018.

McLeskey’s students journeyed to Xeabaj II, a village in Guatemala, in January to survey a community soccer field that had severely eroded due to rainwater runoff. They were accompanied by Randolph-Macon College Chaplain Kendra Grimes and Dr. Ray Martin, a licensed civil engineer. After creating a topographical map of the area, the students created a plan to help mitigate the erosion.

The Xeabaj II soccer field

A Community Gathering Place 

Saving the field was about more than soccer, though. For the residents of Xeabaj II, the field is a place where neighbors gather

for all sorts of purposes.

“The soccer field was created in 2015 by hand by local volunteers who excavated material from the sides of a valley and filled in the central portion and lower end of the valley to form the field,” says Martin. “Rainwater runoff from about 15 acres of farmland above the field was originally planned to drain around the soccer field—but the ditch hadn’t been properly excavated, and runoff water drained across the field, instead of around the ditch, causing two large erosion holes.”

Without intervention, the holes would continue to grow, eventually ruining the entire field.

Volunteers begin laying a base layer of old tires, which were repurposed for much of the construction

Reusing Resources 

The students developed a plan that called for the construction of a drainage ditch and a gravity retaining wall comprised of hundreds of used tires filled with compacted soil—providing a useful purpose for old tires, which are an environmental problem in the area.

“The plan also reduced the cost of remediation and was an approach that the local community could construct,” says Martin. “Students designed the gravity retaining wall and lining using geology and civil engineering principles.”

A group consisting of Grimes, Martin, Randolph-Macon student Kerstin Mayes, and volunteers from Duncan Memorial United Methodist Church (DMUMC), traveled to Xeabaj II once again last summer to implement the plan. Financial support came from the church as well as the Highland Support Project, a non-profit that supports women’s cooperatives that create opportunities for Mayan women. With the help of the locals, they built the new structures in just four days. The field is not only restored, it is now durable, and should last for many years to come.

The hills of farmland above the Xeabaj II soccer field drain large quantities of rainwater onto the land below

A Community with Heart

“The children and adults of the community find such joy on that field,” says Grimes. “We will always treasure being a part of preserving the space they worked so hard to create.”

Mayes, an English major and education minor who had never been on a mission trip, was deeply affected by the residents’ “heart for community, their sweet spirits, and the fact that they were happy as could be with what little they had.”

Despite the physical challenges of the trip—”getting dirt in our eyes, having aching backs, and being exhausted each day”—she is happy that she made the trip.

Mayes is also a member of Randolph-Macon’s soccer team, so she felt a special connection to the project.

“When I heard that we were going to be fixing a soccer field, I thought it was a call from God,” she says. “This trip allowed me to escape myself and fall into the hands of service for others. It was a blessing.”

The retaining wall tops out, ready to protect the field from erosion

Collaborative Servanthood

Grimes, who has traveled to Guatemala eight times, says the project illustrates the power of commitment and community.

“Randolph-Macon College has had a partnership with Duncan Memorial United Methodist Church for many, many years—one that includes the participation of countless students and alumni,” she says. “This latest collaboration shows that wondrous things happen when people come together and work toward the common goal of serving others. Our engineering physics students had the knowledge to design the ditch and retaining wall; the church funded and supported the project with volunteers; and the community members in Xeabaj II did much of the back-breaking work side by side with our team.”


This story is adapted from an article that originally appeared on Randolph-Macon College’s news site. To read the original piece or learn more about Randolph-Macon, visit

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