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Posted by Positive Aging Community on 03/07/2018

Engineering Opportunities

Engineering Opportunities

Customized bikes. Mechanical hands. Bone lengthening devices. Or maybe just a special board to butter your bread with one hand. From high-tech inventions to practical innovations, John Staehlin has engineered it all.

A resident of Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster, Maryland, John enjoyed a long and prestigious career as an engineer. He also founded a non-profit to use his talents to help people with disabilities. Now known as V-LINC, the organization designs custom solutions for individuals with disabilities, giving them the freedom to live as independently as possible.

Carroll Lutheran Village is a not-for-profit continuing care retirement community, offering independent living, assisted living, rehabilitation and skilled nursing services all on one campus. The wide variety of living options, resort-like amenities, emphasis on wellness, and welcoming atmosphere provide an exceptional retirement experience. The community is located in the serene rolling hills of Carroll County, Maryland, on 100 beautifully maintained acres. It is also within easy reach of Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Annapolis, with their diverse cultural offerings.

A native of Baltimore, John was deemed “not college material” and went to work as a machinist after graduating from high school. He spent the next fifteen years going to night school studying to get his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering.

After being drafted into the Army, John returned home and began his engineering career at Westinghouse. During his thirty-seven year tenure at the company, he worked on a wide variety of projects. “While I was there, I invented a lot of things,” John said. “I have over four hundred invention disclosures, and I have thirty-three patents.”

John eventually became the lead engineer on the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) Antenna program. He retired from that consultant position for seven years before returning to work on the same program for Northrop Grumman. When he finally retired permanently in 2008, he had even more time to devote to his already flourishing volunteer efforts.

“I had more ideas than Westinghouse needed, so I started donating my time and ideas to help people with disabilities,” John said of the founding of his non-profit organization, Volunteers for Medical Engineering (now known as V-LINC following a merger). Over the years, John recruited his peers at Westinghouse to work on a variety of volunteer projects, from an eye-blink system for quadriplegics to a bone lengthening device.

After retiring, John and his wife, Mary Lou, decided to downsize from their home of 29 years to a condominium. However, the couple later realized that the condo was too far from their daughter, who lived in Eldersburg, so they began looking for retirement communities closer to her.

“We found Carroll Lutheran Village,” John recalled. “I saw the pool, the gym, the woodshop, and I was hooked.”

The Staehlins moved into a cottage at Carroll Lutheran Village in 2007. Shortly after they moved, John started a volunteer group at the retirement community to work with V-LINC and to help fellow neighbors. “The people here have been very receptive to volunteering. I have recruited other engineers and non-engineers who just want to be involved,” John said. “I have so many ideas of how to help make life a little easier, and we have done all kinds of things together.”

Recently, John helped a fellow resident who broke her arm. “We created a board, so she could butter her bread and peel an orange with just one hand. It has a ridge and a couple of pegs. You can use the ridge to brace the bread and the peg to peel the orange.”

John and his peers also participate in V-LINC’s periodic bike clinics. They volunteer to create customized bikes for children with physical disabilities. During these clinics, engineers work with physical therapists and parents to create a bike that meets the specific needs of each child.

“These bikes are really built for the individual children; they are truly custom,” John explained. “We use back braces, seatbelts, three wheels, training wheels, whatever the child needs. We have even used gloves with Velcro on them, so that the child’s hands will stay on the steering wheel to maintain control of the bike. It is really amazing, and it is really a team effort.”

John and his peers have also helped out with a project through V-LINC that creates artificial hands for disabled children. John and his team had pieces 3-D printed to make custom prosthetics that fit the child’s hand.

“We had a team of ten people here at Carroll Lutheran Village assemble the hands. They really loved putting all the pieces together and seeing a hand take shape,” John said.

When John is not working with V-LINC, he is still creating innovative solutions for individuals with disabilities. He is currently developing an opposing door opener that allows easy access to a front entry using a remote to open both doors simultaneously.

“I am just about to build a rapid prototype of all the parts to prove the concept,” John explained. “I am looking into reinforced plastic parts that are made via rapid prototyping. It is just unbelievable how much technology has changed, and what you can easily do now as an inventor.”

In addition to embracing new technologies like 3-D printing, John has also adapted to the many new ways of doing business. He is currently running a crowd funding campaign to support the development of his opposing door opener. “It is simply an unfair stereotype that people our age can’t use these technologies. We can, and we are. There are people here doing all kinds of spectacular things,” John said.

In November 2017, John received the Hoover Medal in recognition of his professional achievements and personal endeavors that have advanced the wellbeing of humankind. The award is administered by five engineering organizations and recognizes unselfish services by engineers. John was recognized because of his long-standing work on behalf of individuals with disabilities and his continuing dedication to using his engineering skills to help improve the lives of others.

The illustrious list of prior Hoover Medal recipients includes President Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Jimmy Carter, Dean Kamen and Stephen Wozniak. Of the award, John said, “I have always felt that engineers could do anything. Whenever I have turned to my fellow engineers for help solving a problem or creating a system to help someone, they have been ready and willing to use their abilities and their technologies to assist.”

When he is not inventing, John enjoys the many amenities and activities available at Carroll Lutheran Village. “I exercise five days a week in the gym here. I also play bridge twice a week,” he said. “There are so many activities here. You really could never get bored.”

Beyond the activities, Carroll Lutheran Village offers another benefit that John didn’t anticipate but has thoroughly enjoyed: an expanded social network. “When we lived in our home, we knew maybe ten neighbors, and we rarely interacted with them. In our condo, we knew maybe thirty people. Now, at Carroll Lutheran Village, I know more than a hundred people, and we have so many friends.”

John Staehlin has been engineering opportunities for more than 60 years. But he is so much more than just an engineer. He is truly a philanthropist, a man who thrives from giving of his time and talents to help others. From founding his own charity to creating gadgets to help his neighbors, John is always ready to lend a helping hand—and even to make a new hand if need be. He will no doubt continue to imagine and to invent—to inspire and to empower.

By Christy Brudin

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