by Sean Begin
The work that takes place in the basement of the Institute of Technology and Business Development building on Main Street in New Britain didn’t start there. It didn’t even technically start in its original space in Room 101 in Copernicus Hall.
The dozens of wheelchairs in that basement, all in differing states of repair, or, in some cases, disrepair, soon to be fixed and outfitted and sent off to Haiti or other locations, started when Michele Dischino was just an undergrad at Manhattan College.
“I worked on a call bell project as a student with a professor who had a relationship with [an] assisted living [home],” explained Dischino in the workshop, amid the spare parts and partially repaired chairs.
Dischino explained how she and her classmates designed a call bell that was activated by breathing on it, rather than having to press or pull something, an act that could be difficult for a bed-ridden patient.
The experience stayed with Dischino until around 2012 when she attended a workshop for Central faculty interested in finding a way to integrate community service into course work. Remembering her time at Manhattan, Dischino approached Andrew Clark, who put on the workshop, about doing something with her Intro to Engineering students.
Clark, who is the director of the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy (IMRP) at ITBD, mentioned some abandoned wheelchairs he had seen, and why couldn’t Dischino’s students fix those up for people who needed them?
The idea stuck and thus was born CCSU C.A.R.E.S. (Collaboration for Assistive Resources, Equipment and Services), an organization built entirely by Central students volunteering their time.
But an idea and volunteers weren’t enough. Dischino used a large network of contacts, along with the volunteers, to get things off the ground.
The program was able to take off with the support of ITBD’s director Rick Mullins. In addition, Dischino is aided by Tony Goncalves, a Central student and the Program Manager for CCSU C.A.R.E.S., in getting the word out about the program.
Dischino also learned about Chariots of Hope, a Bloomfield company that finds people in need of wheelchairs, the perfect outlet for the work Dischino and her students are doing.
Dischino’s engineering class do most of the work but other students on work-study have also spent time on the project, with anywhere from 20 to 25 working on it at one time. Dischino is hoping to apply for grants that would allow her to pay students for their time.
The program has had enough success that the Student Government Association donated 20 wheelchairs last year, with a dozen having been given out already, including as far as Haiti, where Renaud Joseph has regained his independence thanks to the program.
Joseph became paraplegic after an auto accident. After three months of rehab, he was able to use his chair to return to his wife and children with some measure of mobility and a sense of dignity returned.
Dischino is already looking for ways to advance the program beyond just wheelchairs. She’s looked into the “Go, Baby, Go” program based out of the University of Delaware, which she saw one evening on the Nightly News.
That program repurposes drivable toy cars into mobile chairs for children under three. The University of Delaware will be coming to New Britain on April 10 for a workshop where they will modify several of the toy cars to teach people how to do it themselves. After the workshop, the cars will be donated to young children being treated at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.