While 8-year-old Parris Ortiz received a mechanical hand this month, her third-grade classmates at Wynnton Arts Academy also received a gift -- the gift of learning about technology and generosity as Lance Tankersley of the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center gave the students the chance to help make it.
All involved agreed: It was fitting for this life-changing project to come during the season of giving.
Parris was born with an underdeveloped left hand due to Amniotic Band Syndrome, which occurs when the fetus becomes entangled in tissue inside the womb, restricting blood flow and development.
Her five finger stubs, called nubbins, are webbed inside her hand, and her wrist and hand are fused together, said her mother, LaTala Cofield-Ortiz.
When her daughter was in kindergarten, Cofield-Ortiz researched the possibility of buying an artificial hand, but she couldn't afford the price.
"They run anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the type of hand you get," she said. " Insurance will not cover it. It's considered cosmetic."
Instead, she focused on raising her daughter with a can-do attitude. Parris ties her own shoes and dresses herself and rides a bike. She plays on the jungle gym during recess, but hooking her forearm on the monkey bars hurts, she said.
"She basically does everything that everybody else does," Cofield-Ortiz said. "It just might take her a little bit longer."
But now she has another hand to grab and hold -- and wave and high-five, which she did with glee when she was presented with her mechanical hand, thanks to the father of one of her classmates.
Tankersley directs the Omnisphere Theater at the space science center, which used a grant a few years ago to buy a 3D printer and make math manipulatives for local schools. This fall, he searched the Internet for another project that needs a 3D printer. He found EnablingTheFuture.org, a network of volunteers using 3D printing to make mechanical hands.
"This is an amazing group," Tankersley said. "Our 3D printer was available and underutilized, so it was a perfect opportunity to again use it for something good."
Within a week, he was assigned to make a mechanical hand for a girl in Tampa, Fla. As he worked on his new project, he remembered his son, Cliff, had mentioned a girl in his class at Wynnton has a similar need. So he emailed the teacher, Cynthia Swafford, his proposal to not only make a hand for Parris but also to include the students in the process. "Inspired learning," he called it.
Swafford immediately agreed and called Parris' mother.
Cofield-Ortiz initially was reluctant, fearing it would be too expensive, but when she was told it would be a gift, "I was ecstatic," she said.
Parris didn't need any convincing.
"I was happy and excited," she said. "It would be one time when I can really grab onto something."
Tankersley estimates it costs no more than $45 to make Parris' mechanical hand through 3D printing.
"They say one in 2,000 children need a hand," he said, "and the average cost is about $5,000 for a basic model. For kids, they grow out of it in six months, so who in the world can afford that, unless you're in the 1 percent. That's why this is huge."
Tankersley met Cofield-Ortiz at the school's fall festival and shared more details about the project.
"I thought it was an excellent idea," Cofield-Ortiz, "not only for the children to learn about this but also so it wouldn't be so strange or different once they actually saw her hand."
For a week, Tankersley visited Swafford's class each day for a half hour to guide the students through the project. He was nervous at first, not sure how to handle 24 kids working on one hand and not sure how much of the technical stuff they could handle. But their mature behavior and smart minds impressed him as they ventured into the world of digital modeling and 3D printing.
"They were completely awesome," he said.
All the students had a hand in this hand.
"I loved how the kids worked very cooperatively together," Swafford said. "They really worked well in groups and teams, putting the tendons in the hand. Mr. Tankersley let them do the smallest pieces, even the pegs in the fingers. I mean, they did everything. I was just proud of the entire class, how they came together for Parris and worked together as a group - no arguing or complaining, very happy. It was a great, great week."
Parris' measurements were fed into the Handomatic software program for a custom fit. The 3D printer produced about 15 pieces made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, known as ABS plastic, the same material for Lego bricks. Other parts of the hand include 10 strings, which act like tendons, five of them from 80-pound fishing line to curl the fingers, and five of them elastic to open the fingers. The mechanical hand is attached to the forearm with Velcro straps. Parris controls the motion by flexing and relaxing her wrist.
'Tears of joy'
Cofield-Ortiz cried when she saw Parris put on her mechanical hand and wave to her classmates.
"It was a gift that I couldn't give her," she said. "For her classmates and her and Mr. Lance and Ms. Swafford, just everybody, Ms. Mull, giving us the opportunity to share this with the class was just fantastic. It was tears of joy."
Parris said it was "good to have my classmates helping me and being like a group thing."
After a week of practice, Parris can bend the mechanical fingers about half way. She can play catch, but she still struggles to pick up some items.
"I'm trying to bend it all the way," she said.
Taking a break from reading a book about Kwanzaa, which Parris celebrates, her classmates explained the impact of this project.
"She's my friend," said Marcus Bass, 8, "and I like helping my friends."
Friends or not, "it's good to help others," said Audrey Neuhaus, 8.
"At first, before we did this, I didn't know about 3D printing," said Corban Milano, 9. "I really didn't know anything about what we were doing. It was just brand new to my brain."
Kennedy Foster, 8, liked learning about digital models.
"It shows what you are going to make," she said. "It helps you know where all the pieces go."
Asked what the coolest part was, Kennedy said, "putting together the phalanges," showing she knows the technical term for fingers.
"It makes me feel happy because I wanted Parris to be like all of us," said Kearstin Murray, 8.
Later, Kearstin noted what hasn't changed about Parris.
"She's still very active and she's still doing her work a lot," Kearstin said. "Nothing much has changed about Parris. She's nice. She loves to be people's friend. She loves to work with people. Parris hasn't changed."
Adults gushed just as much about this blessing.
"It was probably one of the most profound things I've done in my life," said Tankersley, 42. "Doing this with my son in it, seeing his dad up there doing something good, and learning something that benefits someone else, it's basically a life-changing thing that he and his class get to be part of."
Tankersley thought of all the forces that converged to make this gift possible.
"It's pretty incredible," he said. "I am basically floored by the coincidence of having someone in my son's class who needs this, finding the Enabling the Future website and already having a 3D printer. There may be something going on that I'm not aware of."
Wynnton principal Carolyn Mull suggested the source of that force.
"It's a gift for everyone," Mull said. "It really personifies the true meaning of the Christmas season because it's about giving with no expectation of receiving. Plus, it's such a wonderful, relevant lesson for the children to learn. They worked together to put the hand together. It speaks well to career awareness and to how science can impact our lives."
This is just the start of something bigger, Tankersley vowed. He already has met with representatives from Northside High School, which houses the Muscogee County School District's engineering magnet program.
"They have a 3D printer," Tankersley said, "and they have agreed to go through the process of printing a mechanical hand. My job is to find them a recipient."
The hope is for the recipient to be a wounded soldier.
"I plan to continue this as long as there is funding for it," he said. "I want to turn this into an official program where we go to different schools and do this wherever it's needed."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.
HOW TO HELP
Now that Wynnton Arts Academy third-grader Parris Ortiz has her mechanical hand, she needs physical therapy to build the muscle strength and fully use it, said her mother, LaTala Cofield-Ortiz, an information technology analyst at Aflac. Her husband and Parris' father, Reinaldo Ortiz, is a hotel houseman at the Courtyard Marriott.
"We're facing a challenge right now," Cofield-Ortiz said. "This is such new technology. Parris is actually the first person in Columbus with this hand. We're trying to find a physical therapist that could work with her."
Parris has done exercises on her own, but her enthusiasm has caused her to overdo it.
"She came to me the other day," Cofield-Ortiz said, "and was like, 'Mommy, I did 200 wrist pumps.'
Which made her wrist sore.
Cofield-Ortiz welcomes anyone who knows of a physical therapist who could work with Parris to contact her at 706-593-4824 or firstname.lastname@example.org.VIDEO ONLINEClick on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.com to view a video of Parris Ortiz and her mechanical hand.