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Local nonprofit persists in helping boy with cerebral palsy catch a fish on his own

Akron Beacon Journal - 7/17/2018

July 17--The lazy days of summer bring with them some of life's simplest joys -- among many, a day of fishing.

But for some, those simple joys are made complex by physical limitations.

Christina Matthews of Ravenna discovered her 6-year-old son, Paxton Hemberger, enjoyed fishing during a trip to a lake last year, but his severe form of cerebral palsy prevents him from doing so without assistance.

Matthews set out to make this summer one where Paxton could enjoy fishing freely, and the Inclusioneers took on the challenge. Together, they found a way that allowed Paxton to test his fishing skills Monday at a lake in Akron. However, a mechanical problem made Monday's fishing adventure unsuccessful.

The Inclusioneers, a Summit County-based nonprofit that builds adaptive equipment for people with disabilities, spent the past six months modifying Paxton's wheelchair so he could reel fish in on his own.

"I think this is the first activity he's been able to do as a typical child," Matthews said.

Paxton has a form of cerebral palsy called spastic quadriplegia, along with dystonia. The combination keeps his muscles contracted and gives him little control over his limbs or movement.

Reaching out

When Matthews saw Paxton's excitement after he caught his first fish last summer, she set out to find an adaptive fishing pole Paxton could use on his own, but she had no success.

She then found and reached out to the Inclusioneers on Facebook, and the president of the organization, Mike Firtha, said he would create a custom fishing device just for Paxton.

Though Paxton and his family are from Ravenna, the Inclusioneers, which typically only focus on Summit County, took on the project with the hope of eventually expanding the organization's mission to other counties and local engineering students, like those at Kent State University.

The nonprofit currently works with the University of Akron's Biomedical Engineering Design team to develop devices while recruiting community support.

For Paxton's wheelchair, that included the Summit and Portage developmental disabilities boards, the Summit Sportsman Association and Miller's Rental. The latter provided funding for the $800 modifications.

"My leading drive for wanting to study this field was the fact that I get to help people," said Walid Abahashim, an upcoming biomedical engineering sophomore at UA who served as the project team leader. "I thought, why not help give this boy an experience that we all take for granted?"

Abahashim estimates he and a team of over 15 people -- which included students, engineers, physical therapists and other volunteers -- worked for more than 60 hours developing the device over about five months.

They came up with a removable mount to hold the fishing pole on the wheelchair's tray, and they added a battery-powered motor to allow Paxton to reel in the line on his own by pushing a single large red button.

They presented the device to Paxton at the beginning of the month to test out at a local lake.

There, in the sweltering heat, Matthews dropped Paxton's line into the water and waited for fish. None came.

After awhile, Matthews was ready to give up. But when she dropped the line in the water one last time, it tensed up, and Paxton pushed the big red button.

The line quickly reeled in, and out came a squirming fish at the end of Paxton's fishing pole. He opened his mouth in a wide smile. His family jumped for joy.

"I was really excited," Matthews said. "To see him do something without limitations is amazing."

Technical difficulties

Since the Inclusioneers was established in 2015, the nonprofit has completed about 25 adaptive devices, Firtha said.

The nonprofit then troubleshoots those devices as needed -- a task that arose Monday, when Paxton and his mother and 5-year-old sister Addison arrived to the Youth Fishing Area at Wildlife District Three on Portage Lakes Drive in Akron to a crowd of media to show off Paxton's fishing skills.

Again, Matthews dropped the line into the water. But this time, when Paxton pushed the button, nothing happened.

A group of six engineers quickly huddled on a picnic bench to fiddle with the fishing pole's mechanics for nearly an hour. They determined the motor stopped working.

It's likely the device won't be repaired in time for Paxton to fill his summer with fishing as hoped. But the disappointing news didn't deter the family's appreciation for the device, nor did it wipe away Paxton's smile.

Before the family left, Firtha made a promise to Paxton.

"We'll get you fishing," Firtha told him. "We guarantee we'll get you fishing."

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.


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