Student pays engineering forward

-December 30, 2013

Freedom Chairs"Helping is more than our hobby." That's the slogan for Freedom Chairs, a charity started by a young engineer that refurbishes wheelchairs for those in need.

Tim Balz is the president and CEO of Freedom Chairs, which he started three years ago as a sophomore at Plainfield High School in Indiana. His path to engineering and philanthropy wasn't always clear, but when he got involved in the FIRST Robotics Competition his interest became a passion. Now his work is gaining support from the engineering community, even seeing him speak at major conferences and events.

"I've always kind of loved how things work, taking stuff apart and putting it back together, but I never actually realized that this could be a career until FIRST Robotics," said Balz. "Before FIRST I didn't really care what my future was going to be."


Tim Balz works on repairing a wheelchair. Source: FreedomChairs.org

One of his teachers convinced the three-sport athlete to join the robotics team, and he soon realized that the mechanical and electrical skills he gained from years of taking things apart could be put to good use.

"I actually quit all my [sports] teams to do that and from there I realized I had a passion and I was really good at it," said Balz. "I realized if I wanted to make a career out of this -- something I loved -- I had to kind of kick butt in school."

After joining the robotics team, Balz raised his GPA from 2.7 to 3.65 and he is now a freshman at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, which US News and World Report ranked as the best undergraduate engineering program among those that don't offer doctorates.

"If it wasn't for FIRST I probably wouldn't be in college, but instead I'm at the number one undergraduate engineering institution in the nation," said Balz.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) programs are gaining popularity with kids of all ages around the world. The high school robotics competition challenges teams to build robots to complete a task that changes every year.

"There's hundreds of thousands of kids involved in the FIRST program," said Balz. "I consider it the fastest-growing sport right now because so many schools are adopting it. It has an incredible impact on lives and it's really cool to see how many kids have a passion for it."

This coming year Balz will be a mentor for his former team and Freedom Chairs will provide valuable experience for team members who pitch in to help.

"I want to get the new members involved and get them some experience wrenching on stuff, so I still plan to have it run by high school students," said Balz, who has been working on Freedom Chairs on the weekends since he started at Rose-Hulman.

It was for his robotics team that Balz acquired his first wheelchair, which he planned to use for practice until he met classmate Steven Scholl.

"My neighbor found an electrical wheelchair in a dumpster and he gave it to me to work on with my robotics team," said Balz. "I found out about a kid in my school who could not afford an electric wheelchair [but needed one], so I decided I was going to help him no matter what it took."

Freedom Chairs Tim Balz Steve Scholl
Tim Balz poses with Steven Scholl, who inspired him to start Freedom Chairs. Source: FreedomChairs.org

Balz found that the wheelchair he received wasn't fixable, so he traded his moped for one in better condition and got to work.

"I tricked it out with a full sound system, leg rest, and all types of other things that he needed for his disability," said Balz.

When Balz went to buy a lift for Scholl, he was given two more electric wheelchairs and realized he could do more than just help his classmate. He took the thousands of dollars in free equipment as a sign and began looking for more people in need. Since it started in 2011, Freedom Chairs has given away about 70 refurbished electric wheelchairs.

Freedom Chairs wheelchair
Freedom Chairs presents a new wheelchair to a young girl. Source: FreedomChairs.org

When the team receives or buys a wheelchair, they clean and sanitize it, then they troubleshoot it. Many chairs just require new batteries, but those can be expensive and difficult to salvage. When they have the resources, Balz and his team use their engineering and robotics experience to make repairs, and if a wheelchair isn't fixable, every part is saved to potentially be used on another project.

"A lot of times it will be like a joystick that's gotten wet so we'll replace it and wire that part," said Balz. "Typically it's something fairly simple, but if they're unfixable or not worth fixing, we'll take every nut and bolt off of it and then we have shelving where we categorize all the parts so if we get a chair that a wheel is bad on, we'll take a wheel from another wheelchair we took apart and put it on there and that wheelchair is fixed without having to actually buy a part."

Beyond just giving people free electric wheelchairs, Freedom Chairs goes the extra mile to customize each one.

"We do our best to tailor the special seating to them and we'll try to coordinate with their physician to make sure we give them exactly what they need for their condition," said Balz. "We've also graphix-wrapped two wheelchairs for kids who didn't want a grandma-looking chair. They didn't know we were going to do this, but one kid got paralyzed in a motocross accident and we actually fully graphix-wrapped his wheelchair to look like his dirt bike."

A big part of the charity's success is due to the recognition it has received and the networking Balz has done to build its influence. Freedom Chairs Vice President Sarah Copeland plays an integral role in the process by writing grants, maintaining the website, and getting the charity exposure through awards. Balz was recognized at the 2012 Red Cross Hall of Fame Awards (see video below), the 2012 Power of Children Awards at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, and by the Indiana Pacers with the Indiana Heroes Award.


Balz hopes the networking and exposure will help Freedom Chairs continue to grow and raise money to help more people. The team is working on partnerships to acquire funding and parts, and also accepts donations on its website.

The young engineer's efforts are already paying off, gaining him and the not-for-profit organization respect and recognition. Recently, Balz had the chance to share his story and help promote Freedom Chairs and FIRST at ECIA's 2013 Executive Conference. ECIA partners with the FIRST Robotics Competition and coordinated the donation of over a million parts to be used in the kit of parts for the 2014 competition.

"It was a really incredible experience," said Balz. "FIRST has done so much for me and it was really gratifying for me to give back to FIRST by speaking at this event."

Balz said helping people has become his passion, and engineering and the FIRST program have given him an unexpected opportunity to give back.

"It's changed so many peoples' lives in wheelchairs and it gave everyone else on the team a passion and drive that helped them to do better in school and become better as individuals," said Balz. "We've made something really good and it's been really cool to see how it's progressed, especially because it's all high school students."

Do you know of any young engineers who are putting their skills to work to better the world? Share their inspiring stories in the comments field below.

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