Stronger Together: International Fundraising with Michel Fornasier Helps Give Children a Hand
What type of work can help children at the international level while successfully combining philanthropy, collaboration, and 3D printing? A creative and inspiring answer to this question is the example of the impactful work accomplished by Michel Fornasier, the founder of Give Children a Hand Foundation. Fornasier, whose actions are guided by the belief that we are stronger together, currently works alongside teams from various countries to help: (1) manufacture free prosthetic hands for children, and (2) publish the adventures of beloved Swiss comic book superheroes, Bionica and Bionicman, to prevent bullying in schools, hospitals, and playgrounds. Based on his personal life journey and childhood memory of obtaining his first prosthetic hand at the age of seven, Fornasier argues that: “Getting children involved in the creation process [of prosthetic hands] is crucial because at the end it is the children who wear them, and it is very important that they like them and that they are happy with” their choice. In this interview, you will learn details about: Fornasier’s vital contribution to the process of manufacturing prosthetic hands for children worldwide; his rationale for creating a comic book series to help combat bullying in a non-violent way; the challenges and opportunities he encountered while registering his foundation in Switzerland; how you may help accomplish his mission; and much more. The interview concludes with Fornasier’s advice to junior practitioners who are interested in the same line of work as the one discussed in this article.
Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Q1. You founded Give Children a Hand, about five years ago, in Switzerland. Could you please briefly describe what this foundation is, why you created it, and what gap in the industry are you working towards filling?
I was born without a right hand. I grew up very protected and in a safe home environment. My parents never treated me differently from my younger two-handed brother. I always received not only the same love but also the same discipline as my brother. In hindsight, it was very important for my development while growing up that my parents did not make a difference between their two children.
Then, when I turned seven years old, I went to see an orthopedist in order to get my first hand prosthesis. That was quite a shocking experience for me because, back then, I walked into the manufacturing department for prosthetics and saw prosthetic legs and hands just lying around. It looked like we were entering a horror movie scene because to me, a child, those prosthetic limbs seemed real. I remember feeling very scared of those kinds of hands. Overall, it was a shocking experience to go through as a child.
Now, decades later, I can see how the experience I had when I was a little boy, made me want to work together with great teams, internationally, to help create hand prostheses for children in a fun way. Children should not feel as though they have something scary that is placed on their bodies to wear. The hand protheses I now help create are more like toys and children are able to be a part of the creative process. For example, if they want, children can choose to put glitter on them or images of comic book characters, cars, or even soccer players.
In brief, maybe the experience I had as a seven-year-old boy was the trigger which, 37-years later, made me create a charity called, Give Children a Hand, to help construct hand prostheses in a way in which children do not have to go through a scary first experience, like mine, and so that they can think of a hand prosthetic as being a functional toy/aid that they can wear and play with.
Q2. In your current job, you collaborate with teams internationally and you also help children internationally. Could you please describe with whom you collaborate in order to: (1) help create hand prosthetics and (2) to accomplish your overall work to assist children?
I have always been a big fan of synergies. Today, there are several ways in which I collaborate with people internationally, in order to help “give children a hand” not only physically, through the means of hand prosthetics, but also emotionally, through the creation and dissemination of a comic book series I helped found, called Bionicman.
Our foundation, located in Fribourg, Switzerland, has a total of six volunteer team members (three women and three men), and is able to work with teams from all over the world, in order to help make a global impact. For example, we work with teams from Switzerland, France, the U.S., the U.K., South America, Asia, etc. And we deliver hand prosthetics to children in any country around the world where there is a request, so there is no border to our reach (for instance: we deliver anywhere in Africa, Europe, Australia, Japan, etc.)
An example of a collaboration we have in Switzerland is the work we do together with ETH at University of Zurich, within the framework of the CYBATHLON event, which is a competition that will happen next in 2024, where creative teams that develop assistive technologies have their products tested within the framework of a contest. And, in France, we work together with e-NABLE, which is a very big organization, with a worldwide reach, formed by thousands of volunteers with 3D printers who help print the parts that we need to create hand prosthetics. The way it works is that we have an open architecture, meaning we can choose our teams or the people we would love to collaborate with, on each project. For us, it is very important that we have the free choice to work together with the people we would like to collaborate with. I believe that it is all about the chemistry and the good vibrations between the team members that help make a great product. And, of course, what is most important is that children get to help create their own hand protheses. Within this process, children can decide on their own. Getting children involved in the creation process is crucial because at the end it is the children who wear them, and it is very important that they like them and that they are happy with the hand prothesis that they choose.
One other aspect that is crucial to mention is that I work together with a team that is amazing who uses an open-source system. Meaning, what they do is not a secret, like say in the case of a beverage manufacturer who does not share their recipe with the rest of the world. The work our team does is open source so we can spread knowledge easily and build on each other’s work.
Q3. How can parents order a hand for their child and how much will it cost them?
Parents who need help with the process of ordering a prosthetic hand for their child can contact us directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be happy to help them navigate through the process.
As for the costs incurred to the parents, it is important to know that, Give Children a Hand Foundation allows us to help create hands that are given for free to the children who need them. We and our partners are able to pay for these hands because of the donations that we receive from very kind people. Thus, children do not have to pay for the hands; they are just a gift that we give them. As you know, the expression of “give someone a hand” means to help someone, and in our case, we try to give a physical hand to the child.
Q4. Besides helping create prosthetic hands you mentioned that you also work towards supporting children emotionally, through the means of a comic book series. Can you please describe how that works?
The comic book series is a great way to help inspire children because all the characters in the comic book series are real. Meaning, all the children, teenagers, and adults represented in the drawings are representations of real people. This aspect was very important for me, along with the idea that the stories we tell are 100% violent free. We do not support violence.
This particular project is a great example of a wonderful international collaboration. The new book, number 4, is drawn by two illustrators from Marvel Studios, from the U.S. These two illustrators previously drew Iron Man, and we are happy that they will draw the fourth book of Bionica and Bionicman. Prior to this, we worked with comic book artist David Boller.
In this new book we are also adding a dog with a superpaw and a pirate cat because children love animals. And Bionica represents a real-life person as well, who lives near Zurich. Romina is currently 30 years old, and she was born without a left hand.
As a result of the comic book series and the Bionicman superheroes we created, we are now asked to visit schools, sport camps, and children’s hospitals where we talk about bullying prevention and acceptance. The missing hands of Bionicman, Bionica, and the other characters provide us with a platform from where we can talk to children about the concept of diversity, the existence of unique personal strengths, and the importance of inclusion. Our overarching message is that we are all equal and we are all special in our own personal way.
You may purchase the Bionicman comic books at: www.bionicman.ch
Q5. Going back to the topic of designing prosthetic hands: In order to determine which prosthetic hand works best for a child, how does a first appointment look like?
Every case is unique therefore each first appointment is very different. This is because in some cases a child may still have the lower part of the hand or in other cases, their entire hand might be missing, or their whole arm is missing.
Hence, the common step that takes place during a first appointment is that we must take measurements for the child’s arm. Normally, the measurements are taken at home, with the help of a computer. If the child lives far away from the team creating the prosthetic hand, then the parents scan the child’s arm, and they send us the measurements. Then, we will check with the manufacturing team. It is important to note that normally, children do not have to be physically here, in Zurich, or wherever the prosthetic hand manufacturers are. Children can have their arm measurements taken at home, by their parents, with the help of a computer, a mobile phone, or even a smart tablet.
For example, we recently created a prosthetic hand for a boy from Macedonia. Since he lives far from Zurich, his parents took all the arm measurements we needed at their home and then sent them to us. We were then able to build his prosthetic hand and send it to him.
It is important to mention that since we are working for children, all the arm measurements we take are very small and these measurements change rather quickly. So, we employ what looks like different sizes of insleeves in which the child can fit their limb. Because children grow very fast, it is very helpful that we can use 3D printing technology, which is not that expensive to use. When the child grows, we take new arm measurements, and we can just print the prosthesis parts in bigger sizes. So, when the child grows, it is not a problem for the product creation. On average, we need to reprint the prosthetic hand about every two years.
Q6. To go into more detail, from the technical side, what do children have a choice in, when creating their prosthetic hand?
Based on our experience, I would estimate that about 90% of children aged from 6 to 10 years old, do not want a human looking hand, they want one that is for example green, like the hand of the superhero Hulk. It is very important that we take children seriously and listen to them: We need to create what they would like to wear.
On the e-NABLE website you may see examples of the types of hand prostheses which are currently being created for children. It is important that we check in with their parents and figure out what they believe that their child needs at that stage in life. For example, they might say that they would like for their child to be able to grab cutlery or to go for a bike ride or be able to do standup paddleboarding. As such, we have several systems that children and their parents can choose from. The products are water resistant so that children may go diving or swimming in the water with them. Plus, they are light, comfortable, washable, and easy to wear.
And, for us, it was also very important to create a “self-confidence hand.” This kind of hand does not have a special functionality, but it looks great. Normally, it is a little bigger than your other human hand, because when something is bigger it symbolizes power and strength. And, this kind of hand looks like a real hand, with five fingers. We also have an example where we built a hand for a child with only four fingers: Like a Mickey Mouse hand (cartoon characters normally have four fingers as it is easier to draw) because that is what the child asked for.
We created this self-confidence hand for when the child is, for example, shopping with their parents or taking pictures with the family or friends. And this hand is just like the name says: It is for the child’s own self-confidence. It is important to remember that the hand we create is so much more than a prosthesis because the child designs it. And normally children want to have a self-confidence hand that looks exactly like the one used by Bionica or Bionicman. So, they can have the same superhand that the comic book character wears. Like this, they can tell themselves: “Oh, now I have a superpower as well!” And that makes them happy, and it is all about the mindset.
Bullying is a problem in schools. Children bully each other for many reasons, ranging from the sneakers they wear to even the profession of their parents. I mean there are a thousand reasons that children bully each other; it does not have to be necessarily because of a limb difference or a disability. But when children are able to wear the hands that we help create, then they feel like they are protected. And unfortunately, of course, that they are going to be bullied again, but they will be able to tell themselves: “Nothing can hurt me because I wear Bionica or Bionicman’s hand.”
Q7. Before starting your foundation, you worked for Amnesty International (as Senior Partnership Manager) and Save the Children Switzerland (as Head of Major Donor Fundraising). Can you please briefly describe your career journey, which took you from working for various NGOs to your current job?
In fact, I first worked in the financial sector for about a decade. Later for Amnesty International (AI), and then for other NGOs.
I worked for AI, in Bern, for about five years, and then I had some projects with UNICEF and Save the Children. Then, my own “baby,” so to say, was born, Give Children a Hand Foundation. With time, the foundation grew. So, I told myself: Let’s give it a try.
At the beginning, it was quite tough. We needed to do a lot of administrative work in order to create the foundation. We decided to register it in Fribourg, Switzerland, because my parents live in the area. It took us nine months to create it, similar to a pregnancy (i.e., a lot of paperwork linked to taxation, etc.) Today, we are very pleased because our foundation is registered, and it is tax-exempt. Hence, when someone donates to our foundation, they are thereafter able to deduct the donation from their annual revenue on their tax declaration.
It was a long journey to create the foundation. And, next to it, we created the comic book series and that really helped me because it was like an escape, a different world. I love to dive into the comics adventures and be able to work with amazing artists from other countries.
Q8. To conclude, would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for practitioners interested in following a similar line of work such as yours?
I am a big fan of the story of Peter Pan and my credo is: Never grow up. Besides this important point I would like to offer four suggestions.
First, it is very important that you have good friends.
Second, it is imperative that you identify your own strengths. I am addressing this point because I believe that identifying each person’s personal strengths early on is very important when working in a team. In a team each person has their own so-called superpower. And because most of the projects are never just a one woman, or a one man show, the combination of different people who have very different skill sets is what makes a team great. For example, I could have never built the Give Children a Hand Foundation and the Bionicman comic book series by myself.
Third, your work should be passion driven. And, when your work is passion driven then, you can achieve your goals and dreams. As Disney says: “If you can dream it, you can make it.”
And fourth, believe in your team, because only when you are working together with others you can make a difference.
Thank you for reading.
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Give Children a Hand Foundation | Switzerland
Would you like to help Give Children a Hand?
To donate and help children receive prosthetic hands for free, please access the following website: https://www.bionicman.ch/gcah/spenden/
Are you inspired by this interview and would like to learn more about Fornasier’s work?
Would you like to buy the comic books discussed in this interview?
You may purchase the comic book series on the Bionicman website (www.bionicman.ch) and on other online platforms. The entire proceeds from the Bionicman comic book series are donated to the Give Children a Hand Foundation.
We hope that this article inspires you, dear reader, to buy one of the comic books discussed here or to donate to Give Children a Hand Foundation and help children create and receive pro bono prosthetic hands.
Illustrations by: The main article photo is by Beat C. Hürlimann. Fornasier's profile photo, at the end of the article, is by Thi Toi Forter. The additional photos showcased on this page have been made available by the interviewee.
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