12 minute read


David Caravello

Georgia’s Engineering Firms Build Better Communities, in More Ways Than One

Initially, she set out to play peacemaker and put a stop to the fighting and profanity she was encountering all too often in her neighborhood on the northwest side of Atlanta. But along the way, Eria Barnett found herself taking on a very different and far more important role.

What started as an effort to curb fighting and arguing in front of children resulted in Barnett creating a safe space for them—right on her own front porch. Hugs and other signs of support for kids in her neighborhood of Grove Park led to children showing up on her front porch, which led to activities and tea parties, finding bicycles for Christmas presents, and offering help in learning to read. None of it was intentional; by simply trying to make her neighborhood a better place for the kids living in it, Barnett wound up filling a need suited perfectly to what she calls her “Mama Bear” personality.

“Children are born innocent. They’re born beautiful. And I’ve tried to maintain that the best I could, considering the environment that was influencing them,” said Barnett, a Senior Document Control Specialist at the Atlanta office of the architecture, engineering, and design firm Gresham Smith. “The parents know what I stand for, and they’re open to it. That allowed me to bond with their children and become an influence. And it just kind of went from there.”

The members of Georgia’s engineering community are known for building better communities through the design and construction of highways, bridges, libraries, schools, airports, and so many other things that enrich the fiber of everyday life in the Peach State. But those same firms also build better communities in other ways, too—through charitable programs, volunteerism, foundation grants, mentoring programs, fundraisers, and countless other philanthropic ways in which the time, talent, and resources of the engineering community are used to help those in need.

And in at least one case, that involves serving as the “block mom” in Grove Park, where neighborhood kids begin showing up on Barnett’s front porch as soon as she arrives home from work. To the adults causing all the trouble, she proved that she wasn’t shy about calling the police. To anyone arguing in the street, she proved she wasn’t afraid to intervene. And to the kids, she offered a sanctuary.

“I try to treat everyone as myself. And if there's a need, and I can do something about it, then I want to do what I can,” said Barnett, who has been with Gresham Smith since 2016 and has nearly 15 years of experience in contract administration and account management.

“I can't do everything. But I can at least try to plant the seed and let someone know that they're not alone.”


Good works, though, extend far beyond the front porch. Barge Design Solutions can trace its beginnings back to the 1950s when namesake Don Barge Jr. founded the firm in the hopes of landing construction phase services on the redevelopment of Capitol Hill. For nearly as long, the firm known for its infrastructure work has also prided itself on

giving back to the communities it serves through grassroots giving and volunteerism. And to find the direction for those campaigns, the company looks within.

“As a company, we could set the docket for the causes and organizations we support,” said Sarah Camperlino, strategic communications specialist with Barge. “However, we recognized that it would be more profound to support the initiatives in which our employees are already involved.”

That effort led to the 2014 creation of the Barge Community Fund, which allows employees who contribute to the fund to also submit applications for their favorite nonprofits to be considered for grants. Of the $468,000 in grant funding given to approximately 130 organizations over the past eight years, more than $40,000 has been given to 17 organizations in Georgia. That was followed in 2021 with the debut of Barge Gives Back, a community involvement campaign in which Barge’s Georgia employees have volunteered with Columbus Water Works, the Chattahoochee River Cleanup, and the Atlanta Food Drive, among other projects.

Barge is not alone among firms that use their employees to direct their philanthropic efforts. The cornerstone of giving at Prime Engineering is its philanthropy committee, which is an organization created and staffed by Prime employees and funded by the company. Consisting of a cross-section of employees from across all branches of Prime, the philanthropy committee meets regularly to seek out and participate in charitable works.

Prime Engineering’s 2022 philanthropic efforts in Georgia have included a Chattahoochee River cleanup; support of Atlanta’s 5K4Kids race, which helps keeps children connected to incarcerated parents; support of “Cars and Q for the Cause,” a car show in Atlanta that raised $505,065 for the Georgia Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; and company-wide animal shelter and Christmas canned food drives.

It’s a similar story at Thomas & Hutton, whose nine service regions throughout the Southeast are connected by the common thread of employee-driven community giving. Launched in 2017, the T&H Helping Hands program is a volunteer effort in which employees donate time to local organizations that directly impact the cities and towns surrounding the firm’s regional offices. The company’s most significant initiative in 2022 has been the “Waiting for Wishes” fundraiser to benefit Make-a-Wish Georgia, spearheaded by Savannah-based chief operating officer and senior Vice President Ben Jones.

Thomas & Hutton has also held events such as an office Olympics to benefit the Atlanta Angels, which helps the foster care community, and the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia; a car show to benefit Shelter From the Rain, a Savannah nonprofit that helps single mothers; and a mini-golf tournament to benefit CURE Childhood Cancer in memory of Catie Wilkins, an Effingham County child who succumbed to the disease. Thomas & Hutton employees in 2022 also pledged $51,064 to benefit the United Way of the Coastal Empire and added average donations of over $1,000 to causes such as the Georgia chapter of the ALS Association and a fund to assist those impacted by an April tornado in Bryan County.

Employee-driven community giving was also on display on March 12, when 21 employees of the engineering firm HDR gathered in snow flurries and below-freezing temperatures outside Atlanta’s Grace Midtown Church. They were there to plant 35 trees, 20 of which had been purchased with funds from a Young Professional Action Grant, a program at HDR designed to encourage leadership and initiative among younger employees. The $5,000 Trees Atlanta grant was sponsored by HDR’s Brigitte von Oppenfeld, who helped plant the saplings near Rodney Cook Sr. Park, which the firm designed.

In August, 17 HDR volunteers gathered at the Atlanta Food Bank to sort 10,611 pounds of food and 8,842 packaged meals as part of a grant sponsored by employee Diana Gu. And three more $5,000 grants were approved in 2022—one sponsored by Gu to plant 20 new trees in Pinnacle Park in Norcross, another by von Oppenfeld and Jenna Levy to install native plantings and place boulders, rebar, and other locally sourced materials in eroded Crayfish Creek, and one sponsored by Rachel Cohen to purchase raised garden beds, soil, seeds, and gardening supplies for Lindsay Street Park in Atlanta.


Children who are unable to read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, studies have shown. In Atlanta, the Dresden Elementary School Education Foundation works to help children meet that key threshold by offering individualized tutoring twice a week. And since 2018, Aulick Engineering has built a relationship with the foundation that includes everything from raising money to espousing the values of STEM education and potential engineering careers.

The activity table that Aulick sponsored for ACEC Georgia STEM Day in October will be donated to Dresden Elementary for use in their STEM classroom. Headquartered in nearby Chamblee, Aulick has also helped the foundation build a playground, decorated classrooms for talks about STEM careers, and donated bicycles to students who demonstrated good attendance and learning habits. And it’s hardly the only Georgia engineering firm to use its community outreach efforts as a way to try and cultivate the next generation of engineers in the Peach State.

Several companies including Prime Engineering and Shear Structural participated in “ACEC Georgia’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” an event held at Kennesaw State University in April. “We had a blast challenging these young female future engineers to build a cantilever as long as possible off the table,” said Malory Atkinson, Managing Partner at Shear Structural. “As Georgia's only women-owned structural engineering firm, it is important for us to cultivate the next generation of diverse engineers in our field.”

Shear Structural employees also volunteered in 2022 with Backpack Bash, an event which provides 100 percent of all school supplies for the entire year to students at a local elementary school with a high-need population. “We raise the funds, then volunteer all day at the school and give out backpacks and let students walk through and pick out all their school supplies,” Atkinson added. “It's a really fun experience to give back to so many students in a high-need community.”

Philanthropic or volunteer efforts with an educational focus were not uncommon among Georgia engineering firms in 2022. At Pond, Vice President of Aviation Hugh Weaver gave a guest lecture at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro and led a field day at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, where students could see various design elements and airport operations up close, get hands-on experience and engage directly with airport crew. And employees at PES Structural Engineers took part in a role model program at Barnwell Elementary in Johns Creek, where they worked with students to explain concepts they used in engineering projects.

Meanwhile, at Carter & Sloope Consulting Engineers, a very different effort was unfolding: employees helping Evan Boyd, son of company President Marty Boyd, with an Eagle Scout project that entailed the beautification of the entrance to the historic Chenocetah Fire Tower, a stone edifice built in 1937. Evan put together a plan for the town of Cornelia to purchase the necessary materials, and in May employees from Carter & Sloope’s Athens office took a day of service to add shrubs and mulch to one of the nation’s largest stands of rhododendron. Evan earned his Eagle Scout rank in July.

For many engineering firms in Georgia, building stronger communities entails battling food insecurity. The Atlanta office of VHB is holding a virtual 5K Turkey Trot to raise money for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which distributes over 65 million meals annually across north Georgia. The Atlanta office of Stantec volunteered in June at the food bank, sorting and packing 1,020 pounds of squash, 980 pounds of Cheez-Its snack mix, and 4,546 nonperishable items and canned goods. And Aulick distributed over 5,000 pounds of food that fed 1,500 people in a food drive with We Love BuHi, a nonprofit working to preserve the multicultural identity of Buford Highway in Atlanta.


There is no playbook to giving back; it can be done in a number of ways and for a number of reasons, and there are countless organizations that can benefit. Some causes are deeply personal—as is the case with Eberly & Associates, which for 12 years now has participated in the Walk to Defeat ALS to raise funds for research and to help the families of those living with the disease. It’s all done in the memory of Ki Song, one of Eberly’s founding partners, who passed away from ALS in 2009.

Other efforts stem from personal connections, as is the case with an Aulick fundraiser for Church of the Common Ground. The organization provides support to the unhoused, the urban poor, and other underserved people in the Atlanta metro area, and Aulick engineer Alex Mooney serves on its board. Still more arise simply from a desire to help, such as WTS Atlanta donating supplies to the Atlanta Mission, or a Croy team participating in a fundraiser to benefit LiveSafe Resources, an organization which provides safety and healing to those impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault, or elder abuse.

Some efforts have their roots in a love of the outdoors, such as PES Structural Engineers’ participation in the Chattahoochee River Clean-Up, and KCI Technologies’ involvement in the Adopt-a-Road Program with Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful. Others have been furthered by technology, such as the “VBay” auction held by VHB. “With the creation of an online bidding tool by our IT Team, VBay became not only our biggest single fundraising event, but also a chance for spirited camaraderie and connections across our footprint,” said Jenny Jenkins, Co-Chair of VHB Cares, the company’s employee-led charitable efforts group.

There’s also the occasional effort inspired by a past story on good works by Georgia engineering firms—such as a Shear Structural initiative which gave each employee $100 in cash with instructions to pay it forward in a meaningful manner, just as WK Dickson detailed in the 2021 edition of this magazine. And then there’s Eria Barnett, and the kids that show up on her porch every evening in Grove Park, and a neighborhood that’s changing for the better thanks to one person’s vigilance and love.

“We did change a lot of the culture,” said Barnett. “Parents know they can come to me for support— there was a family whose lights were not on, so I told them to come to my house to get whatever they needed. But the violence and the arguing and the bickering has gone down substantially. It's rare that it happens anymore. If you come here today, it's very quiet and peaceful.”