When I first met Ava Attfield and her family, Ava was busy at work, opening one of the water bottles sitting on the table in front of her.
There was no hesitation from the toddler, no sense of "I can't do this" or "this is a challenge," just a 3-year-old girl who wanted a sip of water.
Ava didn't care that she only has one hand.
Her parents, Jack and Andrea, and her older sister Aerilon, are all used to seeing this kind of determination from Ava, who has adapted to everything from coloring to eating to riding her bicycle.
"When she rides her bike, she steers left-handed," says Andrea. "She doesn't necessarily have to steer right-handed, but we wanted her to have the opportunity that everybody else has, even though really, she's never needed it. She always kind of just adapts to everything."
That's a big word for the Attfield family in 2019.
And that's where WNY Stem Hub steps in.
"Something to Bridge the Gap"
In his 3rd year running the "Hand in Hand" program, head teacher Ed Hawkins refers to himself as constantly being in a "puddle" state.
A dad himself, Ed's son Ian is one of more than a dozen student Project Team Leaders with this year's project.
"He likes doing it, and he's like a big teddy bear, so to share this with him is pretty neat," says Hawkins of his son.
Many of the students meet in Hawkins' home classroom at Sweet Home High School to design, build, tweak and assemble the models of prosthetic hands they're designing this year.
"[These students] were doing some electronics, some design, some 3D-printing, some CAD work," Hawkins says, as he looks over at several new 3D printers he received this year. "Having the new machines has been a great thing. I didn't have to do a prototype and send the file to somebody else and then try it out. We can fix it ourselves."
Along with Ava's arm, Hawkins' team is designing arms for two other local kids: Nile Burgin, who is actually receiving her second hand from the program, and K'Hani Butts, who doesn't have fully-formed fingers, which creates a new challenge for the student team in their design stage.
The responsibility of that challenge isn't lost on his students.
"At first I thought, 'Okay, its another summer project,'" laughs Chloe Tullius, another Project Team Leader. "But as we learned more and more, it was just like 'Oh, we're actually creating things that will help a family and a child. And it's going to change something in them.'"
"A lot of the kids that have affected limbs, they get along pretty well as they are," Hawkins says. "At some point, yes, they're going to need an actual prosthetic, but this is just something to bridge the gap."
Presentation Day at Roswell Park
81 days passed between Sizing Day and Presentation Day.
On October 26th, Nile joins her mom in Roswell Cancer Center's Gaylord Cary Room, wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "Kind Is Strong."
Ava is sitting on her dad Jack's lap, with Andrea and Aerilon next to her.
One by one, guest speakers, partners, sponsors, and volunteers come to the front of the room to give praise for the program and thanks to the students who worked for weeks and months to complete this ambitious project.
In the lens of my camera, I caught the eyes of Ava and Nile, the two guests of honor; Ava was contently eating her chocolate-covered pretzels with her left hand, as she always had. But Nile's eyes were locked on the table in the front of the room.
There sat two pristine, white, customized prosthetic arms, designed specifically for the two girls for the simple goal of giving them an option to do things just a little bit differently.
Ian Hawkins gifted Ava her arm, and Krissy Baker-- another Project Team Leader-- gave Nile hers.
As the final speakers gave their closing remarks, Hawkins was already sitting down with Nile, working through some of the early kinks that he knew would inevitably come. Nile smiled faintly, testing it out for a moment, before holding it protectively in her lap.
Hawkins moved on to the Attfield family to do a similar kind of preliminary work; he talked mostly with Jack, not only as a teacher, but from one father to another.
Ava's arm would need a bit of an adjustment. Nile's too. But Hawkins was prepared for the challenge.
"That may be the biggest part of this whole thing is," Hawkins smiled. "Every one of these things is a unique problem. And that's what we do: we solve problems."
But through my camera lens, I saw just a brief moment of hesitation from Ava as she reached out for another chocolate pretzel: maybe, she seemed to think, maybe someday I can use my right arm for this instead.
Today, for the Attfield's, that would be enough.
"Everybody has differences, some are easier to see than others," said Andrea, holding Ava, who had already started to hold her own new arm protectively too. "This is really special for her to be able to experience this, and for us."
The Future of "Hand in Hand"
The work continues for Hawkins and his students, who stretch across several high schools throughout Western New York.
Along with fortifying Ava, Nile, and K'hani's arms locally, they're also working on building prosthetic arms for children in Ghana.
And, of course, they're looking ahead to the future; many of this year's Project Team Leaders will graduate from High School, so Hawkins is always looking for new students locally who might be interested in learning the ropes.
"Take your math, take your science, take your technology classes," says Hawkins to any students who might be interested in joining him for future projects. "It takes teamwork, communication, writing. Pay attention in ELA classes, you know? It's all important."
If you or a student you know might be interested in joining future programs like these, Hawkins recommends you keep an eye on WNY Stem Hub's website. Applications for the next "Hand in Hand" program should show up between late-May and early-June.