Canadian Underwriter

Building Bridges

May 8, 2013   by Regan Reid

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In the early 1980s, Christine Millman was studying at the University of Guelph, specializing in Central American politics. Naturally, she was transfixed by the political unrest occurring in Nicaragua at the time. “I became very attached to the people and wanted to go there so badly, but it was a war! I couldn’t go,” says Millman, who is now a broker at Main & Muldoon Insurance Brokers in Brantford, Ont. Thirty years later, however, Millman got her chance.

In 2011, a broker on the board of Bridges to Community Canada, a non-profit organization that builds homes and community infrastructure in Nicaragua, approached Royal and Sun Alliance (RSA) to sponsor a trip. In 2012, the insurance company sent some of its employees to the impoverished country to build a house. “[The trip] was such a huge success, we decided to do it again this year,” said Steve Loncar, regional vice-president at RSA. But for this trip RSA decided to invite its brokers to participate. “It was really important for us to including brokers in this experience. We know giving back to communities is also important to our brokers, so this was a way to help them do that,” he says. Loncar adds that the Bridges to Community project was also a unique way for the insurer to contribute. “We felt we were making a bigger impact by doing this than by simply cutting a cheque.”

Out of Their Comfort Zone

To get its brokers involved, RSA decided to run a photo caption contest that would send the writers of the best captions on a trip to Sasle, a small community in Nicaragua, to help build a school. The winners would need to raise $4,000 that would be donated directly to Bridges to Community Canada and the project. RSA would pay for everything else. Millman was thrilled by the news—but she wasn’t the only one.

“We were overwhelmed by the number of submissions we received,” says Loncar of the more than 115 captions submitted by brokers from across Ontario. In the end, the insurance company sponsored six brokers and took three RSA staff members to Nicaragua for the build. Paul Martin, president and COO of RRJ Insurance Group Ltd., was one of the lucky ones chosen to participate. “I do a lot of charity work, but it’s generally either in runs, or rides, or raising money for Women in Insurance Cancer Crusade through the Relay for Life,” he says. This was different. “I was putting myself outside of my comfort level by actually going somewhere—that was by no means something that I was comfortable doing—and doing something that was different and good, and physical. That’s really why I did it, to challenge myself.”

Sixteen volunteers, including representatives from Bridges to Community Canada, spent a week in Sasle from January 5 to 12. And though winning the trip to Nicaragua was  “a dream come true” for Millman, she soon learned that this was no vacation—building a school is hard work.

Manual Procedures

The RSA trip was one of three trips organized by Bridges to Community Canada to build the school in Sasle. “What was there when we started was a two-room school and an old ramshackle building that was one room and looked like it would fall down in a stiff breeze,” says Rick Bauman, insurance consultant and founder of Bridges to Community Canada. “In two classrooms and this old shack they were somehow getting 180 kids educated. So the assessment we made was they needed another three rooms.” In November 2012 the first Bridges team got to work on the new school building and by the time Millman, Martin and the rest of the RSA crew showed up, their job was largely to mix concrete. “Oh my goodness, they mixed more concrete then you could ever imagine, bags and bags and bags of it!” exclaims Bauman. Their job was to complete the building’s foundation and begin work on the floor. “We did a lot of concrete mixing, which is all done by hand. There were no cement mixers,” says Martin. “You really slept pretty well at night.”

In between work and sleep, the volunteers met some residents of Sasle, toured local homes and saw some of the countryside, but most of the trip was focused on the job at hand. Despite the long days and hard work, everyone came home grateful for the experience. RSA’s Loncar says he’ll never forget seeing a woman walking home with a 30-pound bag of rice on her head. They gave her a lift up the road, but Loncar couldn’t help wondering how much further she had to walk and how long her day had already been. “To come home to a plate of rice and beans after being ten hours in the coffee fields…it brought perspective to me,” he says. Millman is also thankful and can’t help but get emotional recounting the experience. “I’m so proud to have been a part of this group because their unconditional generosity for these people makes me, every day, want other people to share that [experience].”

Though the RSA team was not on hand to witness the completion of the school, they’ve all kept tabs on its development. The three-room addition along with a playground was completed at the end of January. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” says Bauman. “We think that the enrolment of the school is going to balloon to 250 as a result of this expansion.” In February, at the dedication ceremony, the superintendent of education announced she was authorizing a fifth teacher to be assigned to the school. The vice-mayor of the community also made a commitment to support future Bridges to Community Canada projects.

“When you do something good, it tends to lead to other good things happening,” says Bauman.


Copyright 2013 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the April 2013 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.