Angels Among Us

In the wake of the recent bridge collapse in Baltimore, Construction Angels did what it was founded to do: stepped up to serve the families devastated by the loss of six road-crew workers.
By Maggie Murphy
June 7, 2024

In the early morning hours of March 26, 2024, an outbound cargo ship in the Port of Baltimore unexpectedly lost power as it churned toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Authorities had just minutes to stop vehicular traffic before the massive vessel—985 feet long and 157 feet wide, nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower if stood on end—crashed headlong into one of the bridge’s support piers. Quick-acting dispatchers were able to stop the flow of traffic in time, but overnight work crews filling potholes on the bridge didn’t have enough warning. Six workers lost their lives when the bridge collapsed.

On top of bringing immense grief, construction fatalities can be financially devastating to the surviving families. Enter Construction Angels, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance, grief counseling and scholarships to families of fallen construction workers. When founder Kristi Ronyak first heard news of the Key Bridge collapse, she immediately jumped into action. “We started getting calls just hours after the crash,” Ronyak says. “When I first heard the news, my heart sank, and I just started crying.

“I was at a [construction] trade show at the time, and it was all anyone was talking about. We immediately took money from our national funds and were able to provide a total of $65,000 to the workers’ families.” The group also opened an online donation portal and collected funds for two months, all of which will be turned over directly to the affected families.
It was 15 years earlier at that same trade show—World of Asphalt 2009—when Ronyak first identified a need for this particular type of assistance. “Another attendee was going around collecting money for ‘one of our own,’ for a construction worker who lost his life and left behind a spouse and children,” she says. “And I assumed that ‘one of our own’ was the name of a charity.”

It wasn’t until Ronyak got home and did some research that she realized the woman’s effort was purely grassroots. Ronyak grew up in construction—the daughter of a third-generation employee of a family-run asphalt company in Ohio—and it’s that connection to the industry that she says pushed her to dig deeper. “I started looking up Bureau of Labor Statistics [information] on construction fatalities, and it was jarring to me,” she says. “There are nearly 3.5 construction fatalities every day in the United States. That’s a big number.”

So, Ronyak got to work. Outside of her job in the marketing department for a South Florida contractor, she spent her free time developing Construction Angels, the first-ever charity of its kind, which got its 501(c)(3) designation in 2011. “It all started with a golf tournament here in South Florida,” Ronyak says. “Then work took me to Savannah, Georgia, and as I spread the word about [Construction Angels,] folks showed interest in a clay shoot, so we did that. And it really just evolved from there.”

Originally intended to serve the civil construction sector, Construction Angels expanded its services following the collapse of a parking garage at Miami-Dade College in 2012 that killed four construction workers. “The contractor reached out to us to see if we could help, and so from then on, we opened ourselves up to all other construction trades as well,” Ronyak says. “The construction industry is big, but it’s a tight network. Word started to spread, and our reach grew really quickly.”

Today, Construction Angels operates in 31 states and is Ronyak’s full-time gig; the organization also has a three-person support staff. They’ve found that local fundraisers continue to be successful no matter the market, and their volunteer board of directors—made up of heavy-hitting national players such as Gilbane Building Company and United Rentals—helps to get the word out wherever the jobs take them.

“At the end of the day, I wish that a charity like this didn’t have to exist,” Ronyak says. “No one wants to get that call. But I feel very fortunate to be able to do the work that we do, and just knowing that maybe we took a tiny bit of the burden away from these families—that makes it all worth it.”

by Maggie Murphy
Maggie Murphy is managing editor of Construction Executive.

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