Engineering students give gifts of independence to high school student

This article, which appeared Dec. 17, is reprinted with permission from the Herald-Citizen.

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Cookeville High School student Greg Mercer needs a little extra help when it comes to basic tasks like opening doors and brushing his teeth.

The 17-year-old junior has a condition called arthrogryposis, a rare congenital condition that causes multiple joint contractures and is characterized by muscle weakness.

"Basically, he got breech," explained his mother, Debra LaPoint, about what happened when Mercer was born. "It caused him to stay in one position, and it locked his joints in place. His muscles are longer and shorter than they should be."

Other than that, Mercer seems to be an average 17-year-old high school student. He enjoys his psychology, sociology and English classes and wants to study psychology after high school.

But up until a few days ago, Mercer wasn't able to even be alone at home because of his inability to open and shut and lock the door to the apartment he shares with his mother.

"It was difficult, especially if my mom worked, I couldn't get in," Mercer explained.

This is where a group of Tennessee Tech University mechanical engineering students stepped in to help.

Every year, mechanical engineering professor Stephen Canfield asks his students to choose from a list of projects that will in some way make someone like Mercer's life a little easier as part of the Dynamics of Machinery class.

TTU Senior Bryan Lewis was part of the team that helped develop a remote control door opener for Mercer's wheelchair.

"This project was different than the other projects out there," he said. "I could tell it was going to be a big help. I liked the idea of this."

The group, including Lewis, seniors Cory Martin and Marshall Barlow and junior Todd Kaller began working on the project in September and met Mercer in October.

"He's a great kid," Lewis said. "He's a normal 17-year-old kid. He just needed his freedom."

Lewis explained that from Mercer's wheelchair, he can open and close the door and also lock and unlock it.

On Friday, the TTU engineering team came to install Mercer's new remote control door opener and saw an excited Mercer waiting for them.

"I love it, it's awesome," Mercer exclaimed. "It's more freedom, that's what every teen looks for.

"I'll basically get 'me' time," he said.

But the remote control door opener wasn't the only gift Mercer received last week. Another group of students in Canfield's class made an automatic toothbrush for Mercer that he can operate with a Playstation game console.

Students who worked on the toothbrush project included Amy McDow, Jason Bruner, Roland DeCicco, Keith Terrill and Travis Watson.

Mercer told the Herald-Citizen that he learned how to operate game controllers when he was 3 years old and gradually progressed to the Playstation.

"I know the controls by heart," he said. "If you set a controller in front of me, and I was blindfolded, I could still do it."

Mercer said he can even beat some of his friends on the Playstation games he plays.

Lewis said his entire team was pretty excited by seeing how the projects benefited Mercer.

"I didn't realize at first how much it would help," he said. "When we found out, we were all pretty excited."