With howling winds signaling an approaching storm, Harmon Parker stood on a mountaintop in a bush region of Kenya to tell me via cell phone why he loves that country so much.
"The decision wasn't strange," the former Lexingtonian said. "I had something driving me, a destiny. It is a huge privilege."
Parker, who has lived in Kenya for 20 years, builds suspension footbridges so that raging waters or hungry river-dwelling animals can't impede a Kenyan's access to health care, education and a better future.
"People at the bridge site today were shocked that I had been here so long," Parker said. "One of them said, 'Your skin is white, but you are African inside."
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Parker was recently named one of the Top Ten CNN Heroes of 2010, a designation that comes with $25,000 and a chance for more. Anyone can visit the CNN Web site and vote for Parker or the others, with the highest vote-getter winning an additional $100,000 for his or her organization.
Parker, 54, also will be honored with the other nine designees on CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute that will air at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. The winner will be announced that evening.
Parker's non-profit organization is Bridging the Gap, which he created in 2003 to help villagers help themselves by making them a part of the building project.
"I have a methodology called IPO," Parker said. "Any community that wants a bridge has to contact me. They have to initiate it. That (the "I") is the first step for a successful bridge. The 'P' is participation, in design, in sweat labor," he said. "They carry the sand and gravel.
"The 'O' is community ownership," he said. "This is not my bridge. When I show up for a meeting with elders, that is the first thing I say."
Parker decides the best location for a bridge. The average bridge is about 120 feet long and costs $6,000. About six are built in a year because of a limited budget.
The size of the community does not matter — he has built bridges where there are 100 people and where there are 10,000.
Parker, a Christian developmental worker, loves Africa, but the transition from here to there hasn't been without culture shock and pain. He has contracted malaria seven or eight times and has endured boil-like conditions under his skin that were the result of the Tumbu fly's larvae eating his flesh. He has survived dengue fever and is struggling now to defeat bilharziasis, a parasitic disease with a variety of uncomfortable symptoms. He also has been robbed at gunpoint while on a project.
Still, "without sounding corny, I had an opportunity to make a difference," he said. "I was willing to take the risk."
Parker and his wife, Teri, had been married about a year when he accepted an invitation in 1985 to build a home for missionaries in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
He is a skilled bricklayer, a trade he learned and mastered while living in Lexington. He built buildings for W.T. Young and others in the horse industry.
"I do bleed blue," Parker said, laughing.
But he fell in love with Africa after that first visit. In 1990, he was invited to Kitale, Kenya, to build a school, which still operates. That time, he moved there with Teri and their 3-year-old son, Josh.
In the mid-1990s, a visiting development worker taught Parker how to build footbridges. In 1997, he built his first, and word soon spread. He has built 45 bridges in Kenya since then.
The operation is a family affair. Teri Parker is the office manager.
"She does everything and points me in the right direction," Parker said. "All her friends called her the 'Macy's girl,' and I was the crazy outdoorsman. But she has excelled."
Their son, Josh, graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a sociology degree and returned to Africa to work with a relief organization in southern Sudan.
Harmon Parker was nominated as a CNN Hero when the retired director of a mission's organization was watching CNN and the program was announced.
After Parker was honored by CNN and word got out about his program, he realized that he needed additional help, particularly in communications. Bridging the Gap has only two employees: Parker and an accountant.
A board member asked Rob Doughty, who had been vice president of communications for Burger King Corp. and for Disneyland, to help.
Doughty, who owns Rob Doughty Communications, graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 1974. His parents had lived in Stanford.
When I talked with Parker last week, a CNN crew was on its way there to film construction of a bridge. I hope that during the filming, Parker will share the story he told me about the two sisters, now grandmothers, who lived on opposite sides of an impassable river. For years, each stood on their respective shores, yelling across to share the events in their lives and introduce their children to their aunt. Parker built a bridge across that river.
"They were the first two ladies I allowed to cross the bridge," Parker said. The organization's logo shows two women about to meet on a bridge.
"When a river floods, a young mother may need to get her child to the clinic," he said. "Going to the clinic is a very last resort for a mother. Their child may have malaria or typhoid. If she can't cross the river, then that child may die."
"That motivates me," he said. "I am as motivated by helping the few as I am for helping the thousands."
Doughty said Parker's program offers hope. "He gives access to families, to health care and to schools. It is access to things they need and to commerce."
Please vote to help Parker make that access available to more regions of Kenya and maybe even Africa as a whole. Go to http://heroes.cnn.com/vote.aspx. Click on Parker's name and vote for him as many times as you like. Voting ends at 6 a.m. Nov. 18.
Surely we can do that for a true Blue fan who is making a difference.