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ODU Engineering Students Help Disabled Man With his Wish to Be Able to Fish

Four Old Dominion University seniors majoring in mechanical engineering have helped grant a wish for a local man with brain cancer.

Thomas "Tee" Blake has been given fewer than two years to live. He uses a wheelchair, with only partial use of his right arm. But the 46-year-old wants to fish.

That's where the students from the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology come in.

"It's sort of convoluted, how we ended up doing this," said Nate Laverdure, who is from Chantilly, Va.

"Tee's sister Tammy works with my mom. Tammy told my mom about Tee's wish to fish from the pier, but not being able to reel in the rod. My mom, being my mom, volunteered me to help him. And I volunteered my friends."

Laverdure and his classmates, J.T. Meadows from Fredericksburg, Va., Michael Porter from Gaithersburg, Md., and Paul Macchia from Vincent, Ohio, spent three weeks designing and building a mount for a fishing rod for Blake's wheelchair. Then they attached a mechanical motor so that he can control the speed at which he reels in the line with the turn of a dial.

"We really had to manipulate the plan as we went along, sort of through trial and error," Meadows explained.

"We met Tee and took measurements of his wheelchair, and got a general concept of what we wanted to do. I drew up a sketch using SolidWorks (3-D drafting software), and we got assistance from people who mentor with the FIRST Robotics Competition," a high school engineering contest.

In fact, lots of people pitched in to help. Laverdure's old high school in Chantilly donated the parts needed to make the device. And the New Horizons Regional Education Center in Hampton opened its doors to allow the students to use its machinery to make the contraption.

"They really helped us a lot, it was amazing," said Macchia. "The people in Chantilly sent along a few motors we could try out, to make the reel. And at New Horizons, we had free run of the place."

Porter said the rod itself is affixed like those used from "fighting chairs" on deep-sea fishing boats, with the pole mounted between Blake's legs in a metal holding. The motor is bracketed off the side of the rod, running to a control panel on top of the console Blake uses to maneuver his wheelchair.

"I think he was surprised how quickly we were able to put it together. It was only three weeks," Porter said.

The ODU team had the chair attachment done in time for Blake's Columbus Day weekend trip to the Outer Banks.

"Tee and his father were really grateful," Laverdure said.

Alas, inclement weather over the Columbus Day weekend kept Blake from trying out his device. Another trip is planned for later this fall, however, so that he can experience the simple pleasure of fishing once again.

Oktay Baysal, Dean of the Batten College, said the commitment of the four seniors speaks to the type of students ODU's college of engineering attracts.

"Here is a testimonial to that end, when our students reached out and used their knowledge and skills to make life better for Mr. Blake," Baysal said. "It is gratifying to witness the act of kindness that our students are capable of."

This article was posted on: October 26, 2009

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