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Technology that keeps giving Messiah mobility team designs new “legs” for children with disabilities in West Africa

By Rebecca Jekel

John Meyer carries a young Burkinabe boy on his back

On a chilly July morning in 2004, a group of people gathered at the center for those with disabilities in Mahadaga, a rural village in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Locals, missionaries, and visitors from Messiah College all waited at the center throughout the morning, anticipating the answer to one question: Would Yempaabou, a 13-year-old Burkinabe boy, severely disabled with cerebral palsy, be able to transport himself using the electric tricycle designed for him by the Messiah team?

Engineering alumnus Dan Dourte ’04, then a senior who led the team of students who designed and built the tricycle, was finishing a series of last-minute tests outside the center. “Dan gave it a quick run around to make sure it worked,” recalls business administration alumna Elizabeth Barr ’04. “Then, Dan put in the special padding, lifted Yempaabou into the tricycle, and off he went.

“The whole place just stopped—everyone from the handicap center, the clinic, the entire Messiah team. It was the same kind of atmosphere as when the president comes or you open a hospital,” says Barr.

The tricycle project: How it began

The Messiah visitors who witnessed Yempaabou’s new mobility that morning were participants in Dokimoi Ergatai (DE), an organization of students and faculty in the School of Mathematics, Engineering, and Business whose mobility, energy, and water teams develop technology to meet the physical needs of people in some of the poorest countries.

By combining faith, academics, and ministry, “we hope students will graduate with a passion to serve and with a cutting-edge education,” explains W. Ray Norman, dean of the school.

Conceived by David Vader, professor of engineering, DE first took shape as the West Africa Project in 1996, when Messiah was invited by SIM, a Christian missionary organization working in Burkina Faso, to develop a solar power system for the medical clinic in Mahadaga. When a team of students installed the system in 1998, engineering alumnus Matt Walsh ’00 saw a few people with polio, some using hand-powered tricycles.

But it wasn’t until 2000, when Walsh returned to Burkina Faso to help install water pumps, that DE’s tricycle project was born. “That’s when we first really began to see the magnitude of the challenges facing disabled people, especially children,” says Walsh, now an engineer on staff at Messiah. SIM then asked the Messiah team to improve the hand-powered tricycle design, and, in 2001, engineering students at Messiah began to address structural issues “to make the tricycle easier to operate, cheaper to produce, and more reliable,” explains Walsh.

Then, in 2003, SIM gave DE a new assignment: to develop an electric tricycle that could be used by severely handicapped people with very limited upper-body control. Yempaabou was chosen to test the prototype because of his irrepressible spirit and willingness to try new things.

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