- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

FRANKLINTON, N.C. (AP) - Thirteen-year-old Matthew DiFrancesco is growing like a weed, and so is his confidence.

In November 2014, DiFrancesco, who was born with one hand not fully formed, was a much different boy during a visit to City of Medicine Academy to watch juniors and seniors in Vance Kite’s “Disease and Society” class use a 3-D printer to design and build prosthetics hands for DiFrancesco and two other children.

Despite being the center of attention that day, DiFrancesco was a bit withdrawn and only spoke when asked questions by reporters covering the event.

But on a recent visit to DiFrancesco’s home in Franklinton, it was clear that his level of confidence has grown, a glaring change to which both he and his parents credit the prosthetic hand that DiFrancesco received in 2014, a week before Christmas, courtesy of the students in Kite’s class.

“I think a lot of that is actually due to the hand,” said Lynda DiFrancesco, speaking about her son’s new-found confidence. “I think that’s the biggest change, it’s his confidence. It’s opened up a wide variety of things that he can do.”

Perhaps the place the prosthetic has made the biggest difference is in school where DiFrancesco’s friends and classmates were instantly drawn to the prosthetic hand.

“They were really shocked and surprised by it and really liked it,” said Matthew DiFrancesco, an eighth-grader at Franklin Academy, a public charter school. “They were curious about how it worked and what it’s made from.”

From a more practical standpoint, the hand has made life easier. Matthew DiFrancesco is now able to grasp items and also participate in more athletic exercises.

“It helps me catch footballs, pick up a lot of things,” Matthew DiFrancesco said, adding that he was also finally able to participate in a game in P.E., called ankle ball, that requires students to catch a small ball.

Phil DiFrancesco said one of the toughest challenges his son had in P.E. class before getting the prosthetic was jumping rope.

“We had to figure out a way for him to hold the jump rope, but he was actually successful with it. He did good,” Phil DiFrancesco said.

Matthew DiFrancesco said there are some items that still prove difficult for him to grasp such as bottles filled with water.

“I can pick it up, but I have to tip it in such a way that it doesn’t fall out (of the hand),” Matthew DiFrancesco said.

The students in Kite’s class actually made two hands for each of the children, one to fit immediately and one for them to grow into.

Matthew DiFrancesco, who is now almost as tall as his father, is actually now on his larger, second hand.

On a mild fall day just after Thanksgiving, one could see how much more confident Matthew DiFrancesco has gotten in just a year’s time as he showed off his athletic skills and trash-talked with his father Phil DiFrancesco and his siblings Abigail and William as they shot hoops and tossed a football around in the driveway.

And while being interviewed, Matthew DiFrancesco didn’t shy away from a question about whether he has a girlfriend.

He didn’t exactly answer, but give him credit for not fleeing the room as some 13 year olds might have.

“Dad bugs me about that a lot,” Matthew DiFrancesco said, shrugging off the question.

It’s been only a year, but Matthew DiFrancesco has become so familiar with the hand, that he’s learned how to make basic repairs himself.

“It’s given him a little bit of the mechanical engineering aspect about how things move and are designed,” Phil DiFrancesco said, adding that his son has expressed interest in attending N.C. State University to possibly study mechanical engineering.

The family expressed gratitude to Kite and the students at City of Medicine Academy who they said did a great job from start to finish and who continue to help them with repairs and to find spare parts for the prosthetic.

“They did a great job,” Phil DiFrancesco said. “Mr. (Vance) Kite and the students, what they’ve done and what they continue to do is outstanding.”

Prosthetic hands like the one made for Matthew DiFrancesco require only about $20 to $30 in materials, most of which were donated to Kite’s class. Families are not charged for the prosthetics.

A traditional prosthetic would have cost between $15,000 and $20,000. Families are not charged Kite’s class’ prosthetics.

Matthew DiFrancesco was referred to Kite and his students by Enabling the Future, an organization of volunteers that designs and build prosthetic hands for people around the world.

Due to the program’s immense popularity, Enabling the Future was unable to provide the class with children for whom they could build prosthetic hands this year.

Lynda DiFrancesco said she recently put Kite in touch with a friend who has a child who needs a prosthetic hand after Kite asked for help finding candidates for prosthetic hands.

Starting next year, Kite’s students will again make prosthetics for a handful of children who have selected to receive them.

Already looking ahead, Matthew DiFrancesco is thinking about how he can pay forward the gift the students in Kite’s class gave him last Christmas.

For a senior project, he said he plans to raise money to buy his school a 3-D printer so his schools can maybe make prosthetics for kids who need them.

“I hopefully will be starting that next year,” Matthew DiFrancesco said, noting that his teachers were all amazed that his prosthetic was designed using a basic 3-D printer.

Looking even further down the road, DiFrancesco hopes to one day work in a field either making prosthetics or in a medical profession so that he can help people.

“I want to develop prosthetics or just want to work in some place where I can help other people,” Matthew DiFrancesco said.


Information from: The Herald-Sun, https://www.herald-sun.com

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