Helping Hands

Sam Seliger, Eli Kuperman and Amelia Oliver present their finished prosthetic hand. (Provided)
Sam Seliger, Eli Kuperman and Amelia Oliver present their finished prosthetic hand. (Provided)

In keeping with Sam Seliger’s sentiment that “ helping people is really important to me,”  he invited his bar mitzvah guests to participate in a service project as part of his celebration. The prosthetic hands Seliger and his friends assembled will be sent to help land-mine victims and others in countries around the world.

On the Sunday after his bar mitzvah, Seliger and 50 friends in teams of two and three made 19 hands in about two hours at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia. He explained that the design of the hand is intentionally easy to assemble, easy to use and cost efficient and that each piece does specific things so it’s important to assemble it exactly right. There is a video and written instructions of the 13 steps for assembly.

“Then there’s a bag the hand goes into, and we decorate the bag,”  said Seliger, whose parents are Andrea LeWinter and Stephen Seliger, “and we take a picture of the group [that made each hand], and that goes into the bag as well. So it looks nice, and [the recipients] see this picture of who made it.”

The idea came from a family friend, Judy Saunders, who suggested the project after her husband, Josh, participated in a similar event as a team-building exercise at his work facilitated by Odyssey Teams, Inc. The company provides service-based leadership development training to corporations, organizations and other groups, and Helping Hands is one of several team-building projects they offer.

Seliger, who attends Ellicott Mills Middle School, had been considering a few different service project ideas, but he liked Helping Hands best. But the cost, at $1,500 for 10 hand construction kits, was a challenge he would have to address. That’s when the project became a real family affair.

Seliger researched Helping Hands and found out that at its origin was industrial designer Ernie Meadows. He and his wife, Marj, lost their daughter, Ellen, in a car accident when she was 18 years old, and Ernie wanted to create a legacy to their daughter’s memory; he designed the LN-4, a low-cost, light, durable and functional prosthetic hand.

The parents started the Ellen Meadows Prosthetic Hand Foundation, dedicated to provide a “prosthetic hand to every person who wants one and can benefit from it, and do so at no charge,”  according to its website, and that “no one will profit from the production or distribution” of the hands. To date, more than 17,000 prosthetic hands have been distributed to 75 countries.

Hannah Treger (left) and Isabella Kushner work on completing another one. (Provided)
Hannah Treger (left) and Isabella Kushner work on completing another one. (Provided)

Seliger discovered that Rotary clubs were instrumental in securing initial funding for production of the hands. Even though Odyssey Teams is now the major corporate partner with the Ellen Meadows Prosthetic Hand Foundation, Rotary International still provides considerable funding and assemblage of the prosthetic hands.

Here begins the family connection: Seliger’s grandmother, Barbara LeWinter, is a Rotarian. She encouraged her grandson to reach out to local Rotary clubs to secure funding in order to make his bar mitzvah project happen.

“He put together a presentation and went to Rotary clubs since they were a primary funder,”  said Seliger’s mother. She added, “I was a proud mama that he wanted to do a service project instead of a standard bar mitzvah bash.”

Ultimately, the Ellicott City Rotary Club, the Rotary Club of Columbia, the Rotary Club of Williston-Richmond, the Rotary Club of Howard West and the Rotary Club of Columbia Patuxent donated funds. In total, Seliger raised $3,300 but not without the creative help of yet another family member, his cousin, Dana Janik.

Janik’s jewelry is inspired by American Sign Language, so her designs are fashioned after tiny hands in different meaningful sign language shapes. Seliger thought that selling the jewelry could also help raise money, and the connection of hand signs had resonance for him. Seliger sold jewelry at school, community events and was also invited to sell at a rotary club function.

Even at 13 years old, Seliger is no stranger to philanthropy. He regularly participates in raising money for the Ronald McDonald House by swimming laps through a single night with his swim team — last year, he completed 444 — and this month will mark his fourth year participating on the Owen United team for the Polar Bear Plunge, which raises money for the Special Olympics.

Seliger said that while he was building the hands with his friends, “I was thinking it’s going to really help people, and I hope to inspire other people to build them.”  He added that afterward a Hebrew school friend said she wanted to do a service project as part of her bat mitzvah party too.

“That’s what I wanted to hear,”  he said. “It got the message across.”

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