Vanderbilt’s Tikkun Olam Makers Creates Solutions to Everyday Problems for People with Disabilities
Nine-year-old Lucy McGuire plays violin and flute. Like most budding musicians, she struggled to learn how to hold her violin in one hand and the bow in the other. But, unlike most children, Lucy was born with one arm underdeveloped and shorter than the other. The fingers on her right hand also did not develop properly. So, holding that bow was an even greater challenge. But thanks to Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM), a global program that partners university students with people with disabilities, Lucy can now hold her bow in a specially created prosthetic.
TOM began in Israel and now has chapters in over 50 universities worldwide. Vanderbilt University has had a chapter since 2017. The idea is to bring together students in various disciplines with those in need of special, often life-changing, solutions. Lauren Grahowski is a junior at Vanderbilt majoring in mechanical engineering. She is also President of the 2022 Board. She says the TOM program is focused on creating solutions to everyday problems for those with disabilities, also called Need-knowers. “One in seven people worldwide are disabled, and often there are no large manufacturers equipped to create such specialized solutions. We work to make the world better by helping people find those solutions.”
The signature TOM program is an annual Make-a-Thon. The weekend-long event brings together teams of students and Need-knowers who work together on a particular challenge. In Lucy’s case, the challenge was helping her to be able to hold her violin bow and figure out how to help her reach the holes on her flute. What is also unique about TOM is that the students represent a diverse array of majors and studies, including special education, occupational therapy, and computer programming. Lauren says, “A lot of people want to participate, but don’t think they have the skills. We run a crash course on how to design and make prototypes.”
One of the key benefits for families like the McGuires, is that TOM is working on an open-source platform, meaning the cost is significantly less than commercially designed custom solutions. Vanderbilt Professor Kevin Galloway is the faculty advisor for TOM. He says, “Harnessing the open-source platform gives students the power to build off of other people’s ideas rather than starting from scratch each time.” The methodology behind TOM’s human-centered design is also part of Vanderbilt’s philosophy of Design as an Immersive Vandy Experience, DIVE. “We have an innovation roadmap to teach students to design solutions for someone,” says Galloway. He outlines five steps in the process. “First is learning empathy, figuring out who is the audience by asking a lot of questions. Second, is to define and create an actionable problem and set goals. Third, is brainstorming possible solutions. Fourth, is to build the prototype. Fifth is to test it, and last is to iterate the design.” He says it is the multi-disciplinary nature of the teams that is exciting to watch.
John and Liz McGuire adopted their daughter Lucy when she was four years old from a special needs orphanage in China. “We knew we’d have challenges when we brought her home,” says
Liz, “But we never imagined that there would be so many people to help us along the way.” Lucy is a student at the Linden Waldorf School, and it was through one of the parents who helped connect them with Kevin Galloway and the TOM program. John says, “We are so grateful because we had this need and went to a local prosthetic maker, but there was a big financial component.” The whole process of helping Lucy achieve her musical goals has been rewarding for the McGuires in many areas. Liz says, “It was very moving to bring Lucy into a room with eight to 12 students all working on a solution just for her.” They also learned about the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World, and are experiencing its direct application. “This was a true collaboration,” says John, “Adults can be hemmed in, but this requires everyone to think outside the box to help people,” Liz adds that the program helps instill empathy in the community for those who are differently-abled. And Lucy herself is central to the overall process, too. John says, “Lucy always finds a way to solve her own problems. She approaches obstacles one at a time.”
A unique aspect of the TOM program is that while it is based on the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, many of the participants, both students, and need-knowers, are not Jewish. According to Adam Bronstone, Director of Planning and Partnerships for The Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, “This is an amazing intersection of Jewish values and social action. It’s faith-inspiring good deeds.” TOM is funded by TOM Global, as well as Vanderbilt University, United Way, the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, among others, as well as private donors. The Jewish Federation also partners with TOM to provide opportunities for the students to participate in other community-wide events like the recent Jewish Community Day, and The Federation’s Inclusion Committee. Bronstone says, “We have really just started to develop the relationship. And whatever we as a Federation can do to support Jewish and non-Jewish students working to serve the world, we will do.”
Looking toward the next school year, TOM will have new student leadership who will again learn about Tikkun Olam from its partners at Vanderbilt Hillel. But the relationships between the students and those they’ve helped will remain. Lauren Grahowski says, “We’ve seen people we’ve worked with in the past stay in touch with the students.” And the lessons will likely remain for a lifetime, as well. “The biggest impact was learning I can give someone an opportunity to learn about themselves and the world,” says Grahowski, ‘The relationships between the students and the need-knowers is incredible. It’s amazing to watch an engineering student cry because they learn how impactful they can be.”