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Bellingham man helping a boy in South Africa get a grip on life, literally

5 year old Liam was born without any fingers on his right hand, but thanks to the prosthetic created by Bellingham's Ivan Owen he can throw a basketball and even pick up tiny coins.

Ivan Owen is a bit of a sci-fi geek. From his workshop in Bellingham, he likes to create costumes and props for convention-goers and theatre groups. Now, he’s using his expertise in prosthesis to help a little boy half way around the world get a new grip on life.

The story starts with an artisan carpenter in South Africa who lost several fingers in an accident. Rich Van As wanted to find a way to continue with his life’s work.

“He saw a video of a hand that I had built just as a, basically, silly prop,” remembered Owen on KIRO Radio’s Andrew Walsh Show. “It’s a giant metal mechanical hand thing that’s controlled by cables.”

Van As saw the genius in the simplicity of Owen’s design. He contacted Owen and asked if he might try to create a custom prosthetic.

“It’s kind of like he came along, thumped me on the head, and pointed out there might be a practical application for it,” said Owen.

They started with an erector set and rubber bands. After creating several prototypes and going over their designs via Skype, the pair came up with a working hand for Van As.

Little did they know a curious mother in South Africa had been following them in their journey. She was reading their blog with hopes that their efforts might some day help her 5-year-old son.

Liam was born without any fingers on his right hand, but the cost of a prosthetic hand was beyond the means of his family.

Owen said it was almost like starting from scratch. Not only was the shape of Liam’s hand very different from Van As’, they also had to create all the moving parts on a much smaller scale.

With the help of a pair of donated 3D printers, Owen and Van As went back to the drawing board. Comparing notes between South Africa and Bellingham, the pair finally came up with what they now call “Liam’s Robohand.”

The prosthetic cost only $150 to make, but thanks to online donations Liam’s family had to pay nothing.

“Because of crowd funding and people’s small donations from all over, all of the materials for Liam’s device were actually paid for by random folks from all over the world that wanted to help,” Owen says. “We hope to continue that model.”

Just days after trying it on for the first time, Liam was able to throw a basketball for the first time and pick up tiny coins.

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