The Voice: Winter 2002

The Voice

Senior engineering project bears fruit several years later

Carmencita Lucia and her grandmother received the first children's wheelchair designed by Dordt engineering majors. A photo arrived in the mail with a check to Dordt College last month. The short note attached read, “I want to thank Dordt professors and engineering students for designing the children's wheelchair. God is good and so are you.” Carmencita Lucia, the young girl photographed in the wheelchair, was the first child to receive a wheelchair manufactured by Hope Haven of Rock Valley, Iowa. The chair is based on a design initially done two years ago by four Dordt senior engineering students.

The idea for the project evolved slowly, says Mark Hubers ('99). He and Trevor Mentink, Paul Taatjes, and Micah Vardeman made up the team who did the original design of the chair for their senior design project.

“We had no idea what we were going to do for our senior design project,” Hubers, says. Someone suggested looking to Hope Haven, a local organization that serves people with disabilities, so Hubers met with Mark Richard from Hope Haven to talk about possible projects.

Looking around the warehouse, Richard and Hubers passed a pile of donated wheelchair parts and steel. Five years earlier the organization had begun a program to repair and supply wheelchairs to disabled people around the world. Although Hope Haven had since received a great deal of steel to repair wheelchairs, it hadn't used much of it since the steel doesn't usually wear out. Richard and Hubers also found plenty of other parts that could be used to build wheelchairs.

“We really needed children's wheel-chairs,” says Richard. He notes that a higher percentage of children in developing countries have disabilities.

“When people and organizations request wheelchairs, they typically ask for up to forty percent to be children's chairs,” Richard says. Hope Have often had trouble supplying twenty percent.

The four Dordt students began designing a wheelchair out of the donated parts. According to Hubers, the original chair was made out of all donated parts except for a few fasteners and a bit of plastic. That prototype, built by the team of students, cost about seventeen dollars to build after using donated material.

In addition to a concern for economy, the students had to design something that would be easy to ship and assemble. Shipping chairs unassembled costs much less because they can be packed in smaller spaces. The students made the seat and back as well as the wheels removable, but easy to reassemble.

The team also made some adjustable parts so that the chair could grow with the children. The footrest and the seats could be resized with a few spare parts, some simple tools, and the help of Hope Haven workers who deliver the chairs.

“We needed an inexpensive, sturdy chair that would be easy to manufacture from donated parts with donated labor, and that would also be easy to ship and assemble,” says Hubers.

Although it took a year to get the first one made, the chairs_with some minor design changes_are now being manufactured by Hope Haven volunteers in the small Iowa town of Ireton. Carmencita's chair was the first one shipped, but eighty more were made with the donated materials the students found in the warehouse. Since then, a local donor has supplied more parts to keep the manufacturing process going. Richard says they recently sent about forty chairs to a children's hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, and thirteen to Uzbekistan. Since 1994 they have sent more than 22,000 wheelchairs of all sizes to more than seventy countries. Today they are better able to supply the necessary numbers of children's chairs with the adult chairs.

The students benefited from the experience, too. In addition to the satisfaction of helping supply wheelchairs to children who need them, the project taught Hubers to “think outside the box,” as he says. “We were given the materials and conditions with which to work, and we had to find a solution.” That experience stays with them, even though they have spread around the worldsince then. Hubers currently works for an information technology consulting company in Seattle, Mentink for an engineering firm in Sioux Center, Taatjes for the United States Navy in Washington, and Vardeman for Sauer Danfoss in Denmark.

But, Carmencita Lucia and her grandmother, with whom she lives since her mother died, and other children around the world feel the benefits even more.