A Baltimore-area youth leader trains young volunteers to assemble e-NABLE’s prosthetic hands for refugees and others in need around the world.

Think of the feeling you get when you’ve made something that helps another person. No worries if that feeling is hard to describe. Just look at the faces of these Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts assembling prosthetic hands for those in need.

Maria Esquela, a Baltimore-area mom and youth leader, has organized a series of workshops designed to train young volunteers to assemble 3-D printed prosthetic hands made by e-NABLE, a group that creates open source designs for mechanical hand assistive devices. After the Scouts and volunteers build the prosthetic hands, they’re distributed to refugees and others in need around the world.

On the eve of the group’s fourth workshop on December 13, 2014, (which has been growing by leaps and bounds since their first one last November), Esquela, her 15-year-old daughter Sarah, and fellow scouts Savannah Sagandoy, Zach Isett and Connor Brock, all 16, spoke by phone with Not Impossible Now about their incredible humanitarian project.

 Photo courtesy of Jen Owen/e-NABLE

Photo courtesy of Jen Owen/e-NABLE

NIN: How did you get involved? Why did you want to do this?

Maria Esquela: I took my daughter to the Washington Expo for Engineering and Science and found out the NIH (National Institutes of Health) basically has kits that middle school and high school kids can solder together to create neuroscience equipment. We ran some experiments and that was our introduction to myo prosthetics. 

My daughter ended up with me at a laser space where we were using laser and the 3-D printers [to make] a hand. Afterwards, we wanted to introduce the scout community to the MakerSpace community at a scouting event. We requested a hand. We asked people to come with us to the conference at Hopkins. We met Albert Chi (the medical director of the targeted muscle reinnervation program), who was the host, and he agreed to be our mentor.

What we planned on doing at the time was just working with his lab and being partners with him as our mentor, and working on individual cases because enablingthefuture.org works as a matchmaker process. We were going to work on six cases at the institute, but they gave us a request to create a shoe store-like inventory of generic sizes of kids’ hands.

Connor Brock: I initially got into the process when I was in National Youth Leadership Training. I was staffing it with Miss Maria. She came to me with one of the hands, one of the preassembled Raptor hands from e-NABLE. She was showing it off to the participants and we thought, “This is really cool.” Following NYLT, because it was a two-weekend course, I started getting emails and phone calls asking about it. So from there, we started printing and organizing more and more aspects of the project. That’s how I got involved.

Maria Esquela: Connor was going to MakerSpace every day after school. He was definitely our expert on 3-D printing. He and one of the advisers were constantly going and checking and trying to figure how these printers work. Sarah was working with a mentor, the guy who made the instructions over at Direct Dimension (a Maryland-based maker of digital modeling products). We had a printer running that we got to show to people that came from the robotics center. The others took it on faith that these were where these pieces came from.

They were able to look at the instructions with a critical eye and started helping other people. I think one of the amazing things is that all of us are learning this as we go to create this program in a box. The idea has always been that we’re going to teach ourselves to do this, and use our presentation and leadership skills to help other people do this. That’s what happened every time. It’s really a miracle to watch this at the workshops.

How long does it take to create each one?

Sarah Esquela: Altogether, it’s about 13-14 hours.

Maria Esquela: We get the pieces right off the printers. Some pieces are one piece of plastic, with the masking tape and the goop on the back. We pull them off the printer and take them into the workshop.

Zach Isett: We use the pins to actually put them together.

Were you already mechanically inclined when you came into this? Did you play with Legos or Duplo when you were younger?

Zach Isett: I’ve taken a couple of engineering classes so I have a bit of experience of working with stuff like this.

Connor Brock: I came into the project primarily through the whole training and presenting aspect. I really like talking to people and teaching people skills. I thought this project was really great because it was us, younger people and other people in the community as well, to come together and do something that made a very positive impact in the worldwide community. It also gave my friends and me an opportunity to use the skills we have developed to do something in the real world, other than just in scouting.

Savannah Sagandoy: Before I was introduced to this process, I used to make a lot of Lego structures. I would take the leftover pieces my brothers never played with and think of ways to make unique structures. That was always fun to me when I was a kid. I’m still into doing that and I kind of see this hand-making process the same way. You know what you’re going to make and I found that fascinating.

Sarah Esquela: When I was a kid I was always taking things apart and putting them back together again.

Have you thought about how you want to use these skills in your career?

Sarah Esquela: I’m an engineering program at my school right now. I wanted to be an engineer for a while now. This project has opened my eyes to wanting to build things to help people and make their lives better. It’s really up my alley and has really affected me.

Connor Brock: As a teenager, there’s a lot of things you’re restricted from and a lot of opportunities you wouldn’t normally have at any other age.

How many workshops have you had?

Maria Esquela: This will be our fourth.

Since the first one in November, have you gotten feedback on hands you’ve printed for refugees?

Maria Esquela: We’re addressing the upper limb loss due to trauma for any population in any region. They’re for refugees and we have them in all children’s sizes. We’re giving them to Dr. Chi, who is going to be deployed to Africa. Some of this inventory — since we created more than he expected — can go with him. It also can stay with the labs. We’re expecting to videoconference tomorrow during the workshop with two people from e-NABLE, who currently are in Haiti. With 3-D printers, they plan to treat children while they’re there, but they plan on connecting us and with another humanitarian organization.

We’re planning to do this with other groups, where we can find other scouts who want to be our colleagues, and other adults that will play that role for them. We’ve had phenomenal support here at Hopkins. Haiti seems like low-hanging fruit because we already have people on the ground. There’s a scout group that has an exchange program with Kawasaki, Japan. They want us to lead a program for their crew as a teamwork/leadership exercise. And they want to take that with them for what they do Japan. We’ve got another workshop where we can share it with our Canadian colleagues, and our hope is that they can take this program with them back to Canada.

We always had a vision that this would be an international effort, which is why the very first thing we needed to do when we had the director of research and development, we asked him to create the Lego instructions because we knew that would be part of our legacy in this project.

Connor Brock: It enabled us to give the program off to others who can lead it in their area as well.

How many hands have been assembled?

Maria Esquela: 46. We gave one away. There was a scout who came to our workshop and built a hand for this family who had a child who was a candidate for receiving one. He had a myo hand that wasn’t working well. It had a weak grip and it was slow to open and close. It was in the wrong position for some of the things he wanted to do. He was actually our model when we went back to Dr. Chi. He learned how to make arms with us. And he started the printer to print his own hand. He’s coming back to the workshop with his family to make another hand. We made another arm to a boy in Virginia. It was the first time he had a left arm.

What was that like?

Connor Brock: I went to Hopkins for this fitting for this kid in Virginia. It was a great experience because these pieces I was making I got to see assembled and put on this kid who had never had a left arm. And within 10 minutes he was picking up a ball and playing games with his sister. It was really great. It made everything real for me.

Maria Esquela: After that, no one got frustrated making them anymore.

Connor Brock: That was one of the most rewarding experiences — working with this kid and seeing it in action.

Maria Esquela: Connor built the harness for that. It’s a lot like the Raptor hand, but it runs the cords for another three feet. It runs through an aquarium tube, like the kind you use in an aquarium. It runs through that to keep it from getting tangled and getting caught on clothing. It uses 3-D printed parts to assemble a harness with a three-quarter inch ribbon.

Have there ever been any problems?

Maria Esquela: The two things we’ve encountered are that they forgot to sand the hand that needs sanding or they put the pinkie in the wrong place. It’s pretty easy to fix if they haven’t put the cords in yet. The older ones put in the cords and use the power tools and a soldering iron to fuse the ends of the cords.

What’s ahead?

Maria Esquela: Dr. Chi is leaving for Africa so some people are wondering whether this is the end of the project but we’re going to continue to run with it. We have other mentors in Dr. Chi’s lab. We have other mentors in the 3-D printing profession.

Connor Brock: We have the model for the hands, the model that came from e-NABLE, which is an open source model that’s been used prior to this project. You can download it offline. Part of the future of this project that our crew hopes to undertake is improving and redeveloping the hand to make it better functioning, more esthetically pleasing, and basically more customizable. There’s a lot we can do with redesigning the hand. We just want to make an improved version of the Raptor hand or make a better hand in general.

What are you going to call it?

Connor Brock: Because we’re from Baltimore, so we’re going to call it the Raven hand.

Maria Esquela: We hope one day to do a Daniel project

Not Impossible Now thanks Jen Owen and e-NABLE for giving us permission to republish photos from the December 13, 2014, workshop. View more more photos at this link. And please visit e-NABLE’s website and their Facebook page to learn more about their work with 3-D printed prosthetic hands.

Top photo courtesy of Jen Owen/e-NABLE.