A League of Extraordinary Volunteers

Recently, we came across a story that at first sounded unique, as many seemingly random acts of goodness often do. Jeff Powell, a student in North Carolina, had used a 3D printer to make a functional prosthetic hand for a little boy, Holden Mora, who was born without fingers on his left hand. The college student effectively gave the boy a mechanical hand, able to grip a cup, a tool, a doorknob, a fork and many other things. This was all accomplished for about $20, using a 3D printer that fabricates plastic parts using designs available for free on the Internet.

I read the CBS story about this--published late last year--and wondered how it could be possible. Prosthetic limbs cost tens of thousands of dollars. But the more I investigated, the more I realized it was real, and also not just a one-off act of generosity and kindness. It was one small gesture of compassion in a worldwide pay-it-forward movement that I find nothing less than astonishing.

It's called eNable, and it was founded in 2011 by a Rochester Institute of Technology Professor, Jeff Schull, who doesn't build or design anything himself. Instead, he is enabling the growth of a rapidly-expanding Internet network connecting people around the globe who need artificial hands with others nearby who can produce them cheaply and effectively.

Thousands of people are joining the ranks of this movement, hour by hour. A year ago, there were 300 members. Now there are nearly 4,000: makers, engineers, medical professionals, tinkerers, teachers, students, artists, philanthropists, parents and "ideas people" from five continents are networking to make a difference. They are doing it all for free. In the future, eNable will be offering more than just hands: who knows how diverse its open-source development of virtually free products can become? We hear a lot now about ISIS, whose recruits dismember the human body as a show of force in its effort to amass power and money. Well, this is a growing movement of hope and compassion and innovation, making human bodies whole, while asking nothing in return.

During the hours we spent researching this movement, we could actually watch the ranks of this community swell just a little more on Google +. In just several hours, five new volunteers joined the eNable tribe: an owner of a 3D printer in Mildenhall, England, a librarian on Long Island, a computer scientist in Spokane WA, a retired chiropractor in Tampa, FL, and a technology designer in Xiamen, China. That's a rate of one new member every couple hours.

Here are some examples of what volunteers have done so far:

  • In Mansfield, Texas, four high school students modified eNable designs slightly and then printed a new hand for a 38-year-old man who lost most of the fingers of one hand in a wood-chipper accident.

  • In September, last year, a couple travelled thousands of miles, from Mexico, to attend a symposium on 3D printed prostheses, to see if they could get one for their son, Wilhe. A team at RIT went to work and sent the new hand to the family just before Christmas in December.
  • In April, last year, an organization called 3D Universe took $50 printed prosthesis to a Jose Delgado, Jr. who already owned $42,000 prosthesis. Delgado, after trying it out, said he preferred it to the one he already owned.
  • You can read about the birth and growth of eNable at its website, starting with the first DIY prosthetic hand in 2011. The most wonderful words in the account:

    "They decided not to patent the design. They uploaded it on the Internet and gave it away for free. Word started spreading about a prop maker and a carpenter who came together from 10,000 miles apart to make a 3D printed mechanical hand for a 5-year-old boy born with no fingers - and that they did it without asking anything in return. People from around the globe started asking how they could help."

    You can join eNable on Google +. The more people join, the more eNable will be able to do, not simply in changing lives of those who need a new hand, but I predict it will be able to help the change the world in many other ways as well. Once you get a critical mass of compassionate, smart, and generous people together as a group, amazing things happen.

    Despite the evils so evident in the world--in the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere--I can't help but be optimistic about the future of mankind. The faces of good are alive and well. And, I am convinced, on the evidence of voluntary networks like eNable, our better nature will always triumph.

    Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.

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