Through collaboration and hard work, a group of Ivy Tech students and staff helped provide one of their fellow classmates the chance at a career in the automotive industry. Over the course of 8 months, automotive, robotics and welding students built a one-of-a-kind stand up wheelchair that has allowed Austin Frazier, a fellow student and recent graduate of Ivy Tech, to work in the service department at Kenny Kent Toyota.
Impact wrenches whine and reverberate off the metal walls. Hydraulic lifts churn and rumble. Tires are rotated, oil is changed and rubber soled shoes squish along the freshly-polished concrete floor. It is quite literally a well-oiled machine inside the service bays at Kenny Kent Toyota.
Look past the grease, oil and road grime covering Frazier’s uniform and it’s not hard to miss that he’s enjoying every single minute.
“Love the work. Love the job. I really appreciate the opportunity here,” Frazier said. “I like making things work and work right. I’ve always loved fixing things that are wrong with cars.”
Frazier is a fixer, a tinkerer of sorts. When he began driving, the truck he would often drive would break down just as often. Inside the cramped engine bay is where his passion began to fire like an engine in first gear.
“I was just tired of sitting at home. I wanted to get out and make money and be independent,” Frazier said. “I don’t want to be stuck behind a desk. I want to be out here getting my hands dirty.”
Well, he’s certainly accomplished that. Not two hours into his shift, Frazier’s hands resemble those of a chimney sweep.
Frazier knew he wanted to pursue a career in the automotive industry and enrolled at Ivy Tech. As a student, having spina bifida — a birth defect that precludes the spinal cord from fully developing — wasn’t necessarily a big problem. Even though the condition prevents him from standing or walking for long periods of time, his manual wheelchair allowed him to attend class.
Standing on his feet for eight hours in a service bay was another matter. That’s where Jonathan Walker, an Ivy Tech adjunct professor and lab technician, came into play.
“If he wants to get into automotive, he’s going to have problems,” Walker said. “Then when they offered the opportunity to build a chair, I was all over it.”
John Durbin, an assistant professor in welding, saw a video of a stand-up wheelchair that was built by a different college’s students and staff. Durbin along with another Ivy Tech professor managed to secure the blueprints.
Ivy Tech was donated an electric wheelchair in November of last year. The work of transforming it to fit Frazier’s needs soon followed.
“We brought the chair in and stripped it down. We took a look at the blueprints and it went from there,” Walker said.
Utilizing the help of nearly three dozen robotics, welding and automotive students, the chair came together over a matter of months. The chair is motorized, allowing Frazier to quickly but safely move throughout the service bay. Because the chair can extend into an upright position, Frazier is able to be at the same height as his co-workers, allowing him to remove and install tires, loosen lug nuts and replace hub caps just as easily as his able-bodied co-workers.
His co-workers were caught off-guard and surprised when they witnessed the wheelchair move into an upright position.
“I thought it was something out of a Michael Bay movie like Transformers,” said Ian Pike as he let out a big laugh. “I thought maybe we would have slight delays with getting cars out but no delays at all. There’s been a few days where he’s been faster than me.”
It took a couple of days for Frazier to get used to the wheelchair but now he’s mastered it. The custom-made machine also has a new name.
“Charlene. I named it after my grandmother,” Frazier said. “She always said you can be what you want to be.”
When Frazier graduated in May, Walker’s hard work was on full display. However, there’s nothing better than seeing it in action, he said.
“I almost teared up a little bit this morning. I almost cried just because I see him doing it and he really enjoys what he’s doing,” Walker said. “Just the fact that something I helped create is helping him do what he wants to do is worth every bit of it.”
Walker’s ability to recognize the potential challenges that Frazier would face in the automotive field can be traced back to his personal experience. About 16 years ago, Walker was riding a motorcycle when he was hit by a car. Amazingly, he survived his injuries but he was in a wheelchair for several months during his recovery.
“Being in a wheelchair, I realized that I was very limited,” Walker said. “For me, after the wreck and everything like that, I realized that it’s not all about money. I’ve found that if you have the ability to do something to help somebody else, go ahead and do it. You’re going to help yourself in the long run.”
Frazier’s gratitude has been unwavering. He was like a toddler at Christmas while the chair was being made. He’s also immensely grateful for the opportunity to do what he loves.
“I’ve applied for a lot of jobs before Kenny Kent. Those other places made me feel more like a liability than a true worker. Kenny Kent has made me able to prove myself.”
For Joe Fredrich, the director of fixed operations, bringing Frazier along has come without any regrets. Frazier has proven himself to be capable of doing anything that his able-bodied co-workers can do.
“To see somebody come in with that kind of enthusiasm for automobiles and not let his disabilities hold him back is phenomenal,” Fredrich said. “He’s been an inspiration to everyone.”
The collaboration and end result has certainly made Ivy Tech-Southwest Chancellor Jonathan Weinzapfel proud as well. The endeavor could very well lead to new projects, perhaps even a patent. Walker has hopes to built similar wheelchairs for disabled veterans that are capable of going off-roading.
Weinzapfel said the construction of the wheelchair not only taught students about welding and robotics, but it also taught them what it means to help the community. Kenny Kent Toyota officials certainly deserve a tremendous amount of credit as well, he said.
“Not many employers would give someone like Austin a chance and give him the opportunity but [Kenny Kent] did. That’s amazing,” Weinzapfel said. “There is something tangible here that folks get the opportunity to learn and put into practice. That’s what really sets Ivy Tech apart… there are a lot of things that go into it that really make it an exciting project and really create opportunities behind making this wheelchair and creating this opportunity for Austin.”