published Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Cook: The father of invention (with video)

Ezra Reynolds watches his 2-year-old son eat yogurt with a prosthetic spoon he created on the Chattanooga Hamilton County Library's 3-D printer. The printer allows Reynolds to make micro-adjustments as Andrew grows, with a material cost of less than $2 per piece.
Ezra Reynolds watches his 2-year-old son eat yogurt with a prosthetic spoon he created on the Chattanooga Hamilton County Library's 3-D printer. The printer allows Reynolds to make micro-adjustments as Andrew grows, with a material cost of less than $2 per piece.
Photo by Dan Henry.

Meet Andrew Reynolds, the luckiest little kid around.

Two years ago, he was born without a right hand.

Or a left hand.

His right leg ended at his knee.

His left leg? Just below it.

Then he was abandoned by his mother in an orphanage in Ukraine.

(What's that? Oh, yes. The lucky part.)

So last summer, little Andrew's lying in a Ukrainian orphanage, limbless and hopeless, when in walks the man who would soon become his dad.

The man looks down at the boy he soon will adopt, and sees what could be instead of what is. The man takes some duct tape, a potholder and a wooden Ukrainian spoon, and thingamajiggers them together -- the potholder wrapped around the boy's left stub, the spoon coming out the end like a new forearm, the tape holding it altogether -- and presto!

Within days, Andrew's playing with toys, laughing, like someone just catapulted him out of the orphanage and into a Disneyland of possibilities.

"He went from 'I can't' to 'I can,'" said Ezra Reynolds.

This is what Ezra does: He helps people go from I can't to I can. Ezra is a design specialist for Signal Centers, which helps people -- especially disabled ones -- find full and independent lives.

Paraplegics. A woman with Parkinson's. A boy who could only move his finger. A man with a clubbed hand. Using anything from old arcade parts to aluminum foil, Ezra invents devices so they can use a computer, play with toys, keep their jobs.

But his greatest invention?

He gave Andrew something he didn't have.

"Independence," said Ezra.

Last summer, Ezra and his wife, Kelly, traveled to Ukraine to adopt their fourth child. There they met Andrew. He was 18 months old and could do nothing on his own. Not eat. Not play. Not move. They placed a toy in front of him, and he cried.

"He'd been taught he can't do these things because of his disability," said Ezra.

Ezra invents the spoon-arm, then, after they bring Andrew to their Chattanooga home, Ezra invents something like a miniature surfboard with wheels that teaches Andrew how to use his half-limbs to move around.

Soon Andrew discards the board and begins moving around on his own. See the pattern? Dependence is replaced by invention, which leads to independence ... and, among other things, the ability to pry open the fridge.

"We see him scooching off with the mayonnaise," Ezra said.

Talk to Ezra, and you realize quickly his brain is working exponentially faster than yours, 1.21 gigawatts compared to a single-strand bulb. He's 33, graduated from Central High, then the University of Tennessee Chattanooga with a degree in computer science and another in electrical engineering.

For inspiration, he wanders around Lowe's, just looking, like Michelangelo in a marble quarry. His Signal Centers workshop is part Ace Hardware, part Google.

(He once met a boy who'd lost his hand, some fingers and his lower leg, and was terrified of a prosthesis. So Ezra found a Woody doll from "Toy Story." He sawed off the hand, fingers and lower leg, and built a toy prosthesis. He gave it to the boy, so that when the boy went to get his prosthesis, he'd have some company. "It's not so bad if you have a buddy," Ezra said.)

Each week, Ezra takes his designs to the place he loves most: the 3D printer on the fourth floor of the Chattanooga Public Library.

"The limits are what I can envision in my head," Ezra said.

Ezra uses the 3D printer to build devices that help his Signal Centers clients: the blind, dyslexic and paraplegic.

And one day, he used the 3D printer to make a new prosthesis for Andrew.

It's like a plastic bracelet with an O on top. It Velcro-straps to Andrew's stub, so his half-arm now has a cuff with an O above it that can hold a colored marker or a spoon and let Andrew begin to do things like everybody else.

"Like write, or eat," said Ezra.

With a spoon in his 3D-printed prosthesis, Andrew eats second helpings of spaghetti. He steals his sisters' toys. He pulls all the Kleenexes out of the box. Ezra and Kelly scold him, but it's the softest, kindest scolding in parenting history.

"On the inside, we're saying, 'Yes!'" said Ezra.

You see? Andrew's the luckiest. Sure, you could say he got a bum deal in life. That he got shortchanged.

You could say that. But you'd be wrong.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then love is the father. That day in the Ukrainian orphanage, Ezra looked on his son not with pity, but with hope.

He tinkered with a wooden spoon and duct tape. He huddled over the 3D printer. He imagined, believed and created. Because that's what inventors do.

They invent new devices.

But Andrew?

His dad invented him a new life.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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