Stories

Vol State Student Tackles Mechanical Engineering as a Way to Help Kids

Submitted on July 16, 2012 at 2:28 PM

Jon VanDoran wanted to use a wheelchair. His parents wouldn't let him. Born prematurely, VanDoran had a blood clot in his spine that left him paralyzed for the first year of his life. Even after his legs started working again miraculously, it was with greatly diminished strength.

"My parents were very old fashion and they weren't willing to take it easy on me," VanDoran said. "I wanted to use my wheelchair and my father wouldn't let me. They just wanted me to develop the discipline to be successful. They wanted to push me hard, but not too hard. Their big challenge was finding that balance."

Today VanDoran can be seen moving along the campus sidewalks at Volunteer State Community College using crutches, as he has since his youth. He goes at a pretty good clip. It took his wife Talia to get him to use a wheelchair, even occasionally. He admits that at first he didn't want to do it and now he feels better having the option.

His drive to succeed helped him earn a second degree black belt in San Soo Kung Fu. He also built a motorcycle that he can use without his legs.

"I found an old '92 Harley Fatboy. I met up with a guy who works on motorcycles and we figured out what I needed to do to modify it for me. The biggest trick was the shifting, but I never found a good answer to that problem. I started doing research to do it better. I put it all together and made my own design. I machined all the pieces myself. It's a jockey shift set-up with the clutch on the handle of the shifter."

A sidecar, painted with the bright red jaws of a shark, holds the Harley upright. The motorcycle project and years of thinking led him in a new direction. His wife helped to put it in focus.

"She knew that I was intelligent and had more to offer than the jobs I was working. She wanted me to live up to my potential."

Now VanDoran is working on his Mechanical Engineering degree at Vol State. He has a vision for his future.

"The field is called adaptive technology. You have someone with a disability that has something they want to do and you design it for them. I want to go into children's outdoor sports. That stems from me growing up as a child with a disability and there not being many options for me. Going hiking, rock climbing and repelling was tricky. I was always involved in the outdoors, but it was really hard."

VanDoran knew from experience that adaptive technology is often cumbersome and clunky.

"Kids want something that is cool. I want to develop pieces that kids would be proud to have."

To that end, VanDoran is building new skills, which isn't easy for a 30 year-old.

"I grew up hating math. When I was in machinist school I became comfortable with numbers. Once I decided to become an engineer I knew I had to learn to love math. Now I'm a complete math nerd and I love it. The math and science program here has been great in helping me with that."

The next step will be transferring to Tennessee Tech for its well-known engineering program. From there it will be a matter of following the dream.

"I could imagine owning my own company and providing kids with a way to not be afraid to be handicapped. In my mind, that's the end goal."

For more information on Math and Science at Vol State visit: www.volstate.edu/mathscience

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Pictured: Jon VanDoran of Mt. Juliet modified a Harley to meet his physical needs and found a new dream: to help kids at play.

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