GCU club engineers hope for Ruby

Ruby Saunders, who has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and other health conditions, gets help with her mobility from a wheelchair engineered by members of GCU's Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Club. The three large buttons control the direction of the chair.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

This is the story about a wheelchair.

A wheelchair that doesn’t look like the typical wheelchair.

A wheelchair like no other.

It is white.

Grant Goodman (right), a junior mechanical engineering major, responded to a blog post from Linny Saunders, a Phoenix-area mother who was seeking someone to help build a special wheelchair for her daughter, Ruby (center).

It looks cushy, like a dad’s football armchair.

But small.

Like it belongs in a little girl’s room.

It’s has a plank-like tray of oversized buttons that span from armrest to armrest.

A big red button.

A big green one.

A big yellow one.

They look like game show buttons.

They make the wheelchair go.

The wheelchair goes for Ruby Saunders.

And Ruby likes to go. In circles. Forward. Back. In more circles.

A club project

Ruby might not have been able to go in any direction if not for Grand Canyon University junior mechanical engineering major Grant Goodman, secretary of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Club, which is under the helm of faculty advisor and College of Science, Engineering and Technology electrical engineering Assistant Professor Samantha Russell.

It was Goodman who first heard about Ruby.

“I had a family friend send me a link to a blog post,” said Goodman one recent Wednesday afternoon at the electrical engineering club’s weekly meeting. That family friend, Julie Rolffs, said, “Hey, I think this is something you can help with.”

He was in biology lab when he got the text, asking him to read the Place Called Simplicity blog post. As serendipity would have it, lab was postponed and Goodman had time to read the blog, by Phoenix area mom Linny Saunders.

“I have an enormous favor to ask,” Saunders wrote in the blog. “This little miracle girl of ours needs some specific help. We don’t know how to find the help, so we’re putting a call out. There has to be someone who knows exactly what to do.”

Goodman (right) and other students in GCU's electrical engineering club worked on the wooden base for this customized wheelchair for Ruby Saunders. The club's faculty advisor is Samantha Russell (left), assistant professor in electrical engineering.

Goodman thought he might be the one to know exactly what to do.

Linny was asking someone to build a special wheelchair for her and husband Dwight Saunders' daughter, Ruby – Dwight was an adjunct professor for GCU at the time, though these days he keeps busy helping another daughter, Emma Saunders, and her Gem Foundation. The foundation's main focus is a home in Uganda for children with special needs.

It was in 2011, when Dwight and Emma were on a mission trip to an orphanage in Africa, that Emma saw Ruby. She was in a dark corner, emaciated, her bones protruding and her brown eyes, too big for her face, staring back. She was a little more than a year old, yet she weighed only 6 pounds.

The Saunderses knew what they had to do. What they needed to do.

They brought her home.

She is one of 11 children Dwight and Linny have adopted from around the world, many of them with disabilities, and have added to their family, which also includes three biological children.

Ruby, this bright gem of a girl who had a rough start in life, had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She has limited motor function and also battles multiloculated hydrocephalus, a complex condition in which patients suffer from abnormal cerebrospinal fluid collection.

“Ruby is a quadriplegic,” Linny said. “Even if she had a giant wheelchair, it’s too big for her to handle. She has visual impairment, too.”

Linny said when Dwight and Emma found Ruby in that dark corner of the African orphanage six years ago, they were told by the orphanage, “'She’ll never do anything. It’s not even worth feeding her.' She had no one advocating for her. She had a rough start and was severely malnourished.”

The Saunderses never accepted that grim prognosis, and once Ruby was in their care they set about making the best life they could for Ruby, who Linny said is “as smart as a whip” and always one step ahead of her: “She has us laughing all the time. She has a great personality.”

It was at a physical therapy center where the family discovered a wheelchair that seemed to help Ruby, and so the family wanted one made especially for her use outside of the center.

The family had the white foam seat of the chair but needed help with the wooden base, which contains the motor (a windshield wiper motor), wheels and adaptive switches.

Luckily, the Saunderses had instructions in hand from the agency.

“I decided I was going to work on the project in the fall of last year. … But then I realized, I was way over my head,” Goodman said.

As it turns out, the instruction document wasn’t exactly a precise, step-by-step manual.

“They jotted down some thoughts. It wasn’t official, per se,” Goodman said.

That’s when he decided to approach the electrical engineering club for help. As serendipity would have it, the club happened to be looking for a project to adopt.

Everyone agreed that making a wheelchair for Ruby would be how they would spend their time in their first year as a GCU club.

“We decided to design our own version of it and build our own version,” Goodman said.

Overcoming hurdles

Goodman talked to the therapy center and the original chair’s designer, and then the club members took pictures, decided on pieces they wanted to keep, figured out what would work and what wouldn’t, and asked the family to bring in the white foam portion.

Dwight and Linny Saunders (next to daughter Ruby, in the wheelchair) have adopted 11 children, many with disabilities. They got help from GCU's electrical engineering club to try to duplicate a wheelchair Ruby was using at a physical therapy center. The club spent seven months on the wheelchair project.

They had to do a lot of research, he said, since many of the club members were first- and second-year engineering students and didn’t have much experience outside of the classroom. They also got help from professors at GCU and South Mountain Community College.

“It is kind of unconventional,” Goodman said of the chair. “We had to design something to suit her needs. … Ruby didn’t have the capability to maneuver a joystick.”

And so Ruby’s wheelchair includes a middle board that spans the armrests, complete with three oversized buttons. The middle green button moves the chair forward. The red button on the right moves it right, and the yellow one on the left moves the chair left.

About eight club members worked on the project, which was completed in early summer.

Linny remembers vividly that summer day when the club first presented Ruby’s wheelchair to her.

“She had expressions of great delight,” she said. “She pushes the button and spins and spins and spins. … We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. She was SO thrilled.”

Linny said children love to spin in circles, but Ruby hadn’t been able to do that before this wheelchair: “She loves to go and just press those buttons.”

Maribel Franco, the club's vice president, said one of the challenges of the project was when they couldn’t get the motors to work. As it turns out, the wiring wasn’t right.

“A bunch of little things like that,” Goodman said of the project, which he thought would take a weekend to complete but ended up taking seven months.

Despite those hurdles, “It was a good reminder,” Franco said, “of this being for a good cause, so we HAD to get past the hoops.”

Academically, the project helped the students see the difference between mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, she added.

Goodman, a mechanical engineering major, doesn’t have an electrical engineering background, and what’s great about the IEEE Club: It welcomes anyone.

“It’s really cool to be able to see both those fields work together,” he said.

“It’s what makes our club so special,” Franco added. “We learn from everyone.”

The biggest lesson, of course, is that what you study in class, all the book learning, all the theory, eventually comes down to this: applying that knowledge to real-life situations.

In the end, this isn’t just a story about an engineering club.

And it isn’t just a story about a wheelchair.

It’s a story about helping your fellow man.

It’s a story about caring.

About doing good.

For a little girl named Ruby.

After the wheelchair was delivered, the family launched into a busy summer – Dwight left for Uganda, and Linny cared for nine of the couple's 14 children at home. She also runs the nonprofit International Voice of the Orphan and went on a speaking tour for her second book, “The Memorial Box: Retelling the Stories of God’s Faithfulness” (her first book was “Rescuing Ruby”). The family also moved.

“I didn’t have the ability to put it (the wheelchair) together,” said Linny, who recently invited Goodman and his fellow IEEE Club members over for dinner. She also hoped they would reassemble the wheelchair.

“Grant is my hero,” Linny said. “For him to even contact me was a big, brave thing. … For them (the club), as young people, to take up Ruby’s cause … we cannot even express our thanks well enough.”

Russell said of the students in the club she advises, "There are many technical skills they learned throughout the project -- but those can come from a classroom. I saw an opportunity for them to learn the true meaning of working in Christ's name. The challenge in front of them was to make a difference in Ruby’s life, and they accepted it with a happy heart. I have been blessed to be a part of their journey, and I can’t wait to see all the wonderful things they will do in the future."

"After finishing this project, I have no doubt that I am studying exactly what God has created me for," Goodman wrote on social media. "I have discovered that God has placed a desire within me to be involved in something bigger than a field of study or a career or a means of income. Wherever I go in engineering, I want to be somewhere where I can use the skills that God has given me to bless His children.”

Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at (602) 639-7901 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.


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Bible Verse

(Moses addressed Israel, reminding them of God's deliverance of them from Egypt, and His commands given to them:) "You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out (from bondage and delivered you.). The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear." (Deuteronomy 7:19)

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