Born without arms, Abe Harris, 35, learned to write and eat with artificial limbs, but sometimes found they got in his way – so, when he learned to drive at age 16 without them, he put them away.
“They were more something between me and what I was trying to do, Harris says.
By 2011, Harris, an art teacher and a soccer coach, had a 3-year-old daughter who happened to be learning to ride a bike.
“When she got faster I needed a way to stay with her,” he says. But he didn’t know of a bike for someone without arms. That was when Harris met Ray Riley, a retired mechanical engineer and lifelong tinkerer who volunteers with May We Help, a Cincinnati-based charity that designs and builds one-of-a-kind gadgets to help clients with disabilities live more independently – all for free.
After consulting with Harris, Riley modified a standard bike with extended handlebars and coaster brakes that Harris could control with his legs and the trunk of his body.
“When he came to pick it up, I said, ‘Abe, take it easy,’ but he took off!” says Riley, 66. “I was so happy for him.”
Now Harris and his daughter go on weekly rides.
“She and I have the best conversations on the bike about life and growing up,” he says.
For Riley, that s as good as it gets.
“If you can help somebody do something they couldn t before,” he says, “I don t need any better reward.”
How It All Began
The May We Help mission was born in 2005 when three other tinkerers, all named Bill, had a meeting of the minds. Engineer Bill Wood (who passed away in 2010) and his friend Bill Diemling, who owned an injection molding plant, were talking one day about assistive devices they d made for friends and family members with disabilities, when they bumped into engineer Bill Sand.
“I said, ‘Count me in,’ ” says Sand, 67. “I don t have money, but I always have time.”
The three combined their expertise and by 2009 established May We Help as a non-profit. Today the group has more than 100 volunteers in the Cincinnati area and a newly opened chapter in Columbus, Ohio.
With nearly 200 devices custom-made since the group s inception, “we invent things on every project,” Sand says.
His own inventions include cello stands that allow two sisters without arms to play the instruments with their feet – he also customized a bow holder they use with their toes – and several gadgets crafted for a 10-year-old named Ireland, who, due to a rare genetic disorder called Miller s Syndrome, is unable to walk or communicate without a computer.
Sand designed a communication device holder that Ireland can wheel around the house and built a scooter painted green with a shamrock cut-out on the back (and dubbed the Shamrock Express in honor of its owner) so she can move around on her own.
“Ireland is already different and that’s not going to change, but this allows her to be a normal kid and for people to see her that way,” says Ireland’s mother, Amy Reed. “Bill is an angel that came into our life and he s given Ireland more independence than we possibly could. He’s kind of Santa Claus.”
It felt like a holiday at Michelle Sebastian s home when May We Help volunteer Dick Gautraud delivered a custom-made rocket ship bed for her space-obsessed 12-year-old son Landon.
Landon, who is deaf and autistic, had refused to sleep in his own bed, instead choosing to lie in a cardboard box shaped like a rocket. When he saw his new bed, he was thrilled.
“He was very, very excited, bobbing his head back and forth. We call that happy head!” says Sebastian. (See video of Landon’s reaction to his new bed below.)
Gautraud, 66, a retired emergency physician and a woodworking hobbyist, built an enclosed space shuttle bed with meticulous details – painted flower pots for boosters, small holes cut out in the shape of constellations and white board sides which Landon, who loves to draw, can decorate.
“Getting him to come out is the problem now!” his mom says.
Sebastian, a dispatcher for a transportation company with three other children, says their family would never have been able to afford such a bed without May We Help.
“I m so honored to be a recipient of what they do,” she says. “It warms my heart to know there are people out there like that.”
More Heroes Among Us:
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