Seven-year-old Briella Dennee has big plans for her new prosthetic hand: like flying a kite for the first time and practicing her handstand.
The Buffalo second-grader, born with one hand, hadn’t used a prosthetic for several years because of the high expense. But in a ceremony Saturday at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Briella and two other girls became the latest children to receive free, lightweight prosthetics made by local middle- and high-school students as part of the Hand in Hand program.
The two-week summer program, an initiative of the nonprofit WNY STEM Hub, teaches students the basics of engineering and computer-assisted design while they personalize 3D-printed prosthetics for other local kids. STEM stands for "science, technology, engineering and mathematics."
Now in its second year, the program is also expanding to serve children abroad. A fourth prosthetic is destined for northern Ghana, where 12-year-old Issahaku Fawaz is waiting for it.
“I’m happy,” said Briella, tiny in white tights and a gauzy pink dress. “When I get home, I’m going to do cartwheels and handstands.”
For both recipients and students, Hand in Hand is transformational, said WNY STEM Hub President Dr. Michelle Kavanaugh. The 52 students in the program – most of whom came from city schools and had little prior exposure to engineering – met at Health Sciences Charter School in August for a series of guest lectures and hands-on lessons about technologies such as 3D printing.
The students then designed and personalized each of the four prosthetics based on open-source templates from a global consortium called e-NABLE. After a final fitting in late August, the designs were printed by A.W. Miller Technical Sales in East Aurora.
Seeing the results, some participants are already considering careers in science. Ian Hawkins, 15, strung the cables that allow Briella’s hand to grip, and said he plans to study biomedicine.
“She’s so freaking adorable,” he said, watching Briella with her prosthetic. “It took me an hour to do one of her fingers, because she’s the smallest.”
In addition to Briella and the Ghanaian boy, Katelyn McCarthy, 10, and Nile Bergin, 11, also received prosthetics. Katelyn, a fifth-grader, received a hand through the program last year but needed a new prosthetic when she outgrew the old one. Nile, an avid volleyball and basketball player at Christ the King School, also participated as a student in the program.
“It’s exciting. It’s fun to see the whole process,” said Amy McCarthy, Katelyn’s mother. “There are things she wants to do with the hand – this will help her do them.”
In future years, Hand in Hand might help more children, too. Kavanaugh said that after the program connected with a Ghanaian nonprofit to distribute its fourth prosthetic, government officials there expressed interest in setting up a similar program at their schools.
WNY STEM Hub hopes to help that effort by sending several students and teachers to Ghana next year. Hand in Hand will need to secure more funding first. It’s currently funded through local foundation grants.
“Imagine what a profound impact that would make, if the Western New York community came together to change lives in Ghana,” Kavanaugh said.
“This is a life-changing program,” she added. “It’s not just another summer camp.”