Source: IU News
Fred Shema never expected to lose his hand and part of his arm at the age of 11. He had no idea the small, circular item he found as a child living in Rwanda was actually a grenade that would detonate and take his right hand.
He also never thought that eight years later he would meet a man from Indiana University who would give him not only a new arm, but a new outlook on life.
"I am so happy," Shema said as he showed off the 3D-printed arm created by Jon Racek. "I feel like I have an arm again. I never thought I would have that. I am just so happy."
Designing for a purpose
Before coming to IU's School of Art, Architecture + Design as a senior lecturer, Jon Racek ran an architecture and furniture design firm in Los Angeles and Boston. His work was exhibited all over the world, featured in The New York Times and Time magazine and recognized through multiple awards.
But after 10 years, Racek decided he wanted to design with more of a purpose. He sold his firm, and he and his wife set off for a new adventure in Thailand. In a town called Mae Sot, along the Thai/Burmese border, Racek connected with an Australian man building playgrounds in a migrant camp. For a short time, the two joined forces.
In 2010, Racek moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and began teaching design at Indiana University. He later founded Play360, a nonprofit organization that builds playgrounds in impoverished areas throughout the world, including Peru, the Philippines, Zanzibar, Guatemala, Thailand, Haiti and Africa.
He is also teaching students, and future up-and-coming designers, that design can have a bigger purpose.
"I feel a real responsibility to teach my students that design can change communities and people's lives for the better in both big and small ways," Racek said.
Books and Beyond
In 2017, Racek teamed up with IU's Books and Beyond program to build a playground at Kabwende Primary School in Kinigi, Rwanda.
During that build, Racek decided to expand on a project he started in Bloomington: designing and 3D printing a prosthetic arm for a young girl born without a hand. He took measurements of four young people, ages 3 to 19, and returned to Rwanda in 2018 to deliver the arms.
One by one, they showed up: 14-year-old Daniel, who lost his hand to a grenade; 3-year-old James, who was born without a left hand and wrist; 16-year-old Vzneranda, who was born without her right hand; and 19-year-old Shema.
They were shy at first, with no idea what to expect. But as Racek adjusted the Velcro straps, securing the mechanical arms to their bodies, and showed them that bending their upper arm would cause the hand to open and close, smiles and relief slowly crept up on their faces.
For James' mom, the hand represented hope that her son will be able to do all of the things other children his age do. For Daniel, it was having the ability to pick up a water bottle or shake someone's hand. For Shema, it is the opportunity to feel whole again.
"The things he's done, is so amazing," said Leocadie Nyirambunigaba, Daniel's mother. "We are very happy."
Though most of his attention is usually focused on the logistics of design and execution, Racek was inspired by hearing some of the backstories of the children receiving the arms and their reactions to their new limb.
"I think it's always rewarding to see the end result," he said. "There's always a lot of work, and I tend to sort of focus on getting the job done. But there's always nice moments when you can kind of sit back and recognize that you've done something, hopefully, to make people's lives better."
Beyond 3D-printed arms
When it comes to any of his projects, Racek's goal is to create something that is sustainable in the communities he works in. That means materials need to be easily accessible, community members and benefactors put in sweat equity, and people are trained to be able to create/expand the projects themselves.
Knowing that children grow and will need adjustments to their prosthetic arms, Racek decided to partner with a local high school -- Apicur Secondary School -- to create a program he's calling Print Shop, which will train teachers and students on 3D printing.
The idea behind the program extends beyond making adjustments, or additional arms, for other children. Another goal is to create desperately needed items that are difficult to find or too expensive in Rwanda.
"The prosthetic hand was sort of my first attempt at making really impactful work using 3D printing," Racek said. "My hope for this project is that by giving people this technology and training them on how to use it, they will create some local solutions. They will be empowered to design and print their own work."
Racek delivered a printer and materials to the school over the summer. He worked with Apicur teachers and IU student Simon Munyaneza, a native of Rwanda, to come up with items that might be useful, such as protractors, builder squares and a corn sheller, and provided prototypes of those items.
Such seemingly basic items have the potential to make a profound impact on people's lives, Racek said. For instance, families in Rwanda who grow and sell corn take the corn kernels off by hand, a 15- to 20-minute process. That means that everyone in the family has to pitch in during harvest time, leaving other things like school to sometimes fall by the wayside. The corn sheller takes the kernels off in about 30 seconds.
The plan is to have teachers and students come up with ideas. Racek's design students in Bloomington will create a prototype and then email that file to the printer in Rwanda. The teachers and students at Apicur will just have to print it.
Apicur teacher Simpson Ahimbisibwe, who had never seen a 3D printer before his training this summer, was impressed with the ideas Racek and Munyaneza came up with for it.
"They are amazing," he said. "You see the printed things which can be used, like the corn sheller. You see it is a most evolved thing for agriculturalists, but you cannot find it readily on the market. I think that one is very important for us, most especially those who live in the villages."
While the printing project is still in its infancy, Racek hopes it will have a ripple effect on the community as a whole.
"I think this project has lots of benefits," he said. "One is to get people specialized tools that will make their life easier. Another is to expose high school students to this 21st-century technology. And third, there'll be an entrepreneurial aspect to this project. We're trying to make it sustainable, so the school will be selling the objects that they make. And in turn they'll be able to buy more material, they'll be able to scale up the project. So hopefully it continues to grow and impact everyone involved."