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John Staehlin, honored with the Community Foundation of Carroll County’s individual Philanthropist of the Year Award, is pictured with his wife, Mary Lou Staehlin.
John Staehlin, honored with the Community Foundation of Carroll County’s individual Philanthropist of the Year Award, is pictured with his wife, Mary Lou Staehlin. (Submitted photo / Submitted photo)

John Staehlin has an inventive mind that never seems to rest.

He has designed and assembled mechanical arms to allow people with missing or paralyzed limbs to grasp objects, modified a crib for a new mother who had become wheelchair dependent so she could pick up and hold her baby without assistance, and designed prosthetic feet for an Iraq War veteran that allowed him to go rock climbing despite missing both legs.

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Most recently, Staehlin designed a device to open opposing doors, such as a front door and a storm door, for a fellow resident at Carroll Lutheran Village, where Staehlin has lived for nine years. Once the device is constructed, the resident, who has recently begun using a wheelchair, will be able to enter and exit his home without assistance.

At 86, the former Westinghouse engineer is retired, but with all the projects he takes on, you would never know it, according to Lisa Albin, director of church and public relations at Carroll Lutheran Village.

"He's retired, but not really. The great thing of it is that he is essentially working for himself doing what he enjoys, and what he enjoys is finding solutions to make people's lives better," she said.

"He's not getting paid for what he does. He just does it because there is a need and he has the skill and brainpower and time to put toward finding these solutions."

Albin thought Staehlin's work deserved recognition and nominated him for the Community Foundation of Carroll County's Philanthropists of the Year Awards in the Individual category. He won. The foundation will honor Staehlin as well as winners in Business, Youth, Nonprofit and Legacy categories at the 11th annual Philanthropist of the Year ceremony at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19 at Martin's Westminster.

A prototype of the mechanical hand John Staehlin worked on creating. Staehlin is the Community Foundation of Carroll County’s individual Philanthropist of the Year Award winner.
A prototype of the mechanical hand John Staehlin worked on creating. Staehlin is the Community Foundation of Carroll County’s individual Philanthropist of the Year Award winner. (Submitted photo / Submitted photo)

Staehlin, for his part, was pleasantly surprised and honored when he learned of the recognition.

"I was really shocked when I got the award because I didn't consider it philanthropy at all, because I definitely don't have the funding to do these things," he said. "It's been my life — I just invent."

But philanthropy, and certainly the Philanthropists of the Year Awards, are about more than just writing big checks, as needed and welcome as such donations are, according to Community Foundation Executive Director Audrey Cimino. What Cimino is looking for are those unnoticed but committed volunteers who do things in the background, though it "doesn't make a big splash, they do it year after year."

John Staehlin, honored with the Community Foundation of Carroll County’s individual Philanthropist of the Year Award, is shown supervising a Carroll Lutheran Village resident assemblying a mechanical hand.
John Staehlin, honored with the Community Foundation of Carroll County’s individual Philanthropist of the Year Award, is shown supervising a Carroll Lutheran Village resident assemblying a mechanical hand. (Submitted photo / Submitted photo)

"It becomes part of the fabric of this community," she said. "I want people who are doing these things to feel the gratitude and the appreciation from the community for what they did. Not necessarily the amount of money they give, but what they gave of themselves, and that's John Staehlin perfectly."

It hasn't just been in his retirement at Carroll Lutheran Village that Staehlin has turned his engineering genius toward solving problems for others, especially those with some form of impaired mobility.

In 1982, while still working at Westinghouse, he formed the Volunteers for Medical Engineering, or VME, as a nonprofit vehicle for applying engineering know-how to helping people with disabilities, securing grants or self-funding projects so people could be helped without being asked to pay.

"My whole career has been inventing devices," Staehlin said. "I felt like I had a lot more ideas than Westinghouse needed, so I started VME in order to get people interested in helping people with disabilities. Westinghouse loved it. They gave me time to work on it and it was really tremendous."

One of the early developments to come out of VME was eye tracking software to enable paralyzed people to communicate through eye movement. Dubbed the BLINK System, it is now available as a free download through V-LINC, an organization created in 2010 as a merger between VME and another nonprofit, Learning Independence Through Computers.

V-LINC continues Staehlin's tradition of recruiting engineers to help others through efforts such as the annual What I Wish for My Child program, where V-LINC taps engineering students to provide customized solutions to five Maryland children with disabilities.

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And while Staehlin may be retired from active work with V-LINC, he still manages to pull together those around him with engineering experience to contribute to the V-LINC mission.

"I have a group of volunteers at Carroll Lutheran village ... We meet once a month," Staehlin said. "We kind of pick projects that are for local residents and when we develop something that's worthwhile, we submit it to V-LINC for their records."

One such project was the design and 3-D printing of mechanical hands for disabled children.

"One of the volunteers came in and told us about children that have shriveled-up hands. There is a device that was designed so that when you move your wrist, it opens and closes an artificial hand," Staehlin said. "We built a rapid prototype, five hands, and we put them together, all the retirees at Carroll Lutheran Village. That was very rewarding."

The device Staehlin invented to assist in opening opposing doors, meanwhile, is promising enough that from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, Staehlin is taking it to the 2016 LeadingAge Annual Meeting and Expo in Indianapolis, Indiana, according to Albin.

"They are having 'Shark Tank'-like pitch sessions for people to pitch innovations and inventions," Albin said. "They are taking this device out there and they will be pitching it, and they have the opportunity to win some money that they can then use to continue working on what John is working on. His mind is always turning."

And that's the whole reason Albin nominated Staehlin. The chance to potentially win some money is not a bid for profit or a business venture — it's a means to enable Staehlin to continuing doing what he does best: helping people one-on-one, with novel solutions to their individual problems.

"He's contributing his mind, his talent, his knowledge, but the real gift that he's giving is independence," Albin said. "When you are older or mobility impaired, to not be able to open a door, to not be able to pick up a glass or a fork and then have someone come in and provide you with the ability to do that is very empowering. It provides you with a sense of independence that has been missing."

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified John Staehlin's age and the status of one of his engineering projects and has been corrected. Staehlin is 86-years-old, and his invention that opens opposing doors, such as a storm door and a front door, is still in the design phase.

jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com

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Part 4 of 5 in philanthropists series

The Times is highlighting these philanthropists, who will be honored at the Community Foundation of Carroll County's annual Philanthropists of the Year Awards on Wednesday, Oct. 19 at Martin's Westminster.

Saturday: Nonprofit, GFWC Woman's Club of Westminster

Sunday: Youth, Diana Welliver

Monday: Business, Terry's Tag and Title

Today: Individual, John Staehlin

Wednesday: Legacy, Greg Kahlert

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