Friday, June 1, 2018

Innovation Institute: Empowering a Deserving but Underserved Community

They are people just like you and me. They have dreams. They strive to find meaning and make a difference. They're smart, industrious, experience joy and disappointments, and want to make a difference. I'm referring to people with disabilities, though the same could be said of many marginalized groups.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
According to recent HUD statistics,  2.2 million people in the United States depend on a wheelchair for day-to-day tasks and mobility. 6.5 million people use a cane, a walker, or crutches to assist with their mobility.

The needs of handicapped people are greater than merely medical/physiological. They include empowerment to pursue intellectual and entrepreneurial quests. They also have social and romantic needs. Disabled persons experience the same internal drives that all people experience. According to Abraham Maslow this includes the need to feel safe, the desire for love and belonging, a sense of self-esteem and ultimately the fulfillment that comes from realizing/utilizing one's talents.

There are many institutions helping provide basic needs like food and shelter for this subset of our population. There are still too few committed to move people beyond the bottom rungs of human need. One of these that I've been following these past 15+ years, however,  has made it a mission to help disabled men and women dream bigger dreams while empowering them as well.

The mission of Innovation Institute is stated as follows: Empowering people--regardless of their disability--by including them in the process of creating practical assistive devices that increase mobility, self-esteem, and independence; providing opportunities for them to give back to the community; and engaging them in the service of others.

What's impressive is that they are actually doing it.

For years I have watched Harrold Andresen’s career. It was easy to do, since he’s my brother-in-law, having married my wife’s sister. In 1980, the four of us went to Mexico to work at an orphanage, a significant experience in all of our lives. Susie and I returned to the States in late fall 1981, Harrold and Nancy in 1982.

People donated broken pedal cars to the orphanage and Harrold would
turn them into a fleet of supercars. He was much loved by these kids.
Harrold has been an entrepreneurial  auto mechanic before going to Mexico. While South-o’-the-Border he was dedicated to mechanical tasks not only for the orphanage, but also for the vehicles of many missionaries who brought their cars and pickups to him.

When the Andresens left Mexico he set up shop in the Rio Grande Valley, where he continued to work on cars, but also continued to service missionaries’ vehicles. (On one occasion he serviced one of Prince Charles' vehicles.) Eventually the family moved to Duncanville, a suburb of Dallas, where he established his business, Mechanical Excellence. In addition to taking care of cars, Harrold was continuously inventing. He invented tools, he invented what he called the Cozy Heater, a product they sold to customers in nearly every state. He conceived a vehicle which combined the best engine with the best body, and built a number of them for customers. He also ran a rental car business and pursued other miscellaneous endeavors. But underneath it all was a desire to help handicapped people, especially the wheelchair bound.

Eventually Andresen began taking steps toward building what has come to be known as Innovation Institute. “The mission of the school is to get products into the hands of the disabled that they couldn’t get anywhere else or they couldn’t afford. Also, to give them some skills so they can earn some money for the first time in their lives.”

Andresen’s auto shop at one time had 20 bays for working on cars. Following his vision for the space three-fourths are now set apart for the school.

There were many hurdles to overcome, not the least of which has been learning about some of the special challenges the disabled must face with regards to finances. For example, if they make too much money (and we're not talking a lot) there is the danger of losing their Social Security benefits. It's a Catch-22.

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There's much more that can be said, but the best way to tell it is to show you some of the projects Harrold and his students have worked on over the years. It's quite remarkable.

Innovation Institute is located in Duncanville, Texas, a Southern suburb of Dallas. They say everything's big in Texas. What I've seen here are big hearts.

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Related Links
Innovation Institute Home Page
Facts about Americans with Disabilities (Pew Research)

Meantime life goes on. Be engaged.

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