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Effingham Magazine

10-Year-Old Aubrey Stuart Receives 3D Prosthetic Arm Through The Hands of Hope Foundation

10-Year-Old Aubrey Stuart Receives 3D Prosthetic Arm Through The Hands of Hope Foundation

Story by Kelly Harley | Photos by Tonya Perry

The first thing you notice about 10-year-old Aubrey Stuart is her huge smile and the dozens of freckles that line her cheeks. She quickly captures you with her kindness and her level of maturity. If it wasn’t for her rolled-up sleeve, you might not realize she isn’t like many kids her age.

On May 19, 2010, Aubrey’s father remembered seeing her for the first time. “I looked at my daughter and then looked at the doctor and said, ‘Where’s my daughter’s arm?’” says Michael Stuart.

It wasn’t until birth that Aubrey’s doctor and her family realized she was missing half of her right arm. Doctors believe Aubrey suffered from amniotic band syndrome, a rare condition caused by strands of the amniotic sac that separate and entangle digits, limbs, or other parts of the fetus. In Aubrey’s case, an amniotic band tightly wound around her arm, leading to the decreased blood supply and resulting in an amputation of the limb inside the amniotic sac.

“It never held her back,” says Michael. “She was climbing a fence at age one. She’s never let it hinder her, and she wows everybody.”

Aubrey is a fifth-grader at Rincon Elementary. She says she rarely gets picked on these days, and only sometimes will kids point at her.

“If someone asks about my arm, I like to tell them that my dad and I were swimming in the ocean when a shark surrounded him. I tell them I punched the shark in the eye to save my dad, and that’s when it bit my arm off,” laughs Aubrey.

Her sense of humor keeps you laughing. Her strength and determination keep you in awe. She likes to call it her little arm, and she can do just about anything with it.

She types on her laptop. She puts her hair in a ponytail. She hunts with her dad. She fights with her brothers and holds her own. She can do a one-handed cartwheel. And she has no problem dressing or tying her shoes.

Despite how well she has adapted, Aubrey’s stepmother, Marie, says her stepdaughter has always wondered what it would be like to have a right arm. “I don’t look at her like she’s different, and I don’t think she has a handicap,” says Marie Stuart. “But when she told me she wanted an arm, I set out on a mission to help her.”

Marie says they searched and searched for someone to make a 3D arm for Aubrey, but were having a tough time finding someone in the United States. She was able to find a company in Switzerland who sent her the schematics of a 3D arm, and Marie’s brother, a computer programmer in Georgia, offered to make it. Sadly, he suffered a stroke and passed away before Aubrey’s arm was made.

Marie and Michael didn’t stop. After more research, they were put in contact with The Hands of Hope Foundation—an Ohio-based non-profit dedicated to serving and empowering local and global disability communities through the resources such as 3D printing, 3D scanning, research, and development.

Connor Hart is the foundation’s president. In high school, he and a small team were challenged to make a 3D-printed prosthetic for a 7-year-old girl named Hope. The team researched, experimented, and tested models for months.

A year after meeting Hope for the first time, they presented her with the final arm, personalized just for her. Hope had a huge smile on her face when she used the arm for the first time.

In 2018, Connor officially founded The Hands of Hope Foundation (named after Hope) so that kids could continue to be empowered by 3-D printing technology.

“The main reason I do this is for the smiles I get to see on the kids’ faces when they open up the prosthetics for the first time. It truly is a memorable experience,” says Connor.

All of the services provided to families are free of charge, too. Connor credits this to the generosity of faithful donors.

As the foundation began working on Aubrey’s arm, Aubrey was left in the dark. “We wanted to keep it a surprise from her. We thought it would be here a little sooner, but COVID-19 slowed things down,” says Marie.

In early September, Aubrey’s new 3D-printed prosthetic arrived from Ohio. Her family had a huge surprise planned for her.

One Sunday afternoon, all of her friends and family came together for a picnic at the Stuart house. There was a big wrapped box sitting on a table. When it was time, Aubrey was told to open it. With her friends and family surrounding her—and Connor and his staff on a live Zoom chat—the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived. Aubrey finally saw her arm for the first time.

“I was so happy. It was very cool, and I even teased my parents because they kept it hidden under the bed for two weeks until we could all get together,” adds Aubrey.

Aubrey’s new arm is white, and Marie decorated it with glitter to personalize it. Aubrey can strap it on, and when she bends it, strings allow the fingers to open and close. She can pick up a water bottle, ride her bike with both hands, and keep both sleeves of a jacket unrolled.

The first time Aubrey wore it to school, she felt like a star. Marie had matching shirts made for Aubrey and her teachers. The back of the shirts read, “Yeah, I have a prosthetic arm. What’s your superpower?” Photos of Aubrey holding up her arm and surrounded by her teachers were posted on the school’s Facebook page. Loving comments flooded the page.

This arm is just a test arm for Aubrey and will help her get used to wearing one. Next, she will be fitted for another arm, one that will slide on. She will receive two arms, and she picked out the colors. One will be flesh-colored, and the other will be teal and purple. Called the Kwawu Arm 2.0, it will have a little more adaptable grip that will allow Aubrey to pick up something as small as a bean, cut her meat, and even write her name. Marie says it should arrive by Christmas. Aubrey is very excited about the new arm because it has fingernails on it. “When we go get a manicure, I can have both hands painted,” smiles Aubrey.

While they wait, Aubrey will get used to having an arm—something she’s lived without her entire life. She will continue playing soccer for the Rincon Recreation Department and attending tumbling classes at D.E.E.N.O.S. Planet Gymnastics. “She has no problem doing anything,” says Michael. “She’s always been a blessing to everyone.”

Still, this new arm gives her a chance to experience what many people take for granted. “It helps make things easier. I’ve always wanted an arm, and I never had the experience with a right arm. This is a dream come true,” says Aubrey.