High School Engineering Students Build Specialized Face Mask For Fifth Grader With Autism

COVID-19 lockdowns and health guidelines have brought many obstacles and challenges to all of our lives. One nuisance that many of us have likely developed as second nature by now is wearing a mask. For one 11-year-old girl, however, wearing a mask isn’t as easy as it seems.

Kathryn Ferrara, a fifth grade student who loves to swim, was born with Down syndrome and was diagnosed with autism within the first few years of her life. According to her mother, Kathleen Ferrara, Kathryn has struggled with many new aspects of the pandemic, especially wearing a mask. Ferrara mentions that Kathryn doesn’t like anything touching her face, which makes convincing her to wear a mask nearly impossible. Additionally, Kathryn is non-verbal, and so at times when she does wear a mask, it’s difficult for her mother to read her and know when she needs or wants something.

Kathryn and her mom have a trip planned next month to attend a five-day retreat for children with autism. They were originally planning on attending last year, but the retreat was cancelled due to the spread of the coronavirus. Now, with the trip less than a month away, Ferrara is struggling to find a way for Kathryn to wear a mask for the entire duration of the flight. “But what she definitely needs is protection from the virus,” said Ferrara. That’s where the Milford High School engineering students come in.

engineering program face mask child autism
Photo: Facebook/Milford Engineering

Peter Leeper, high school teacher and faculty advisor for the engineering program, encourages his students to focus their projects on creating something that helps someone in need. To help Kathryn, the students broke into small groups to brainstorm ways that Kathryn could be protected by a mask, without it touching her face. Their current model includes a plastic face shield with a 3D printed frame that can attach to any one of Kathryn’s vests with velcro. “This is not just for the trip, it’s for life, to keep her safe,” said Ferrara. “It’s life-changing and life-saving.”

In January of 2021, Kathryn and her mother paid the engineering students a visit for a fitting of the new face mask alternative. Ferrara was touched by the moment of kindness offered by the high school students, mentioning she was grateful for the “gift of acceptance,” not just the mask. “They’re creating normalcy for our kids and for that we’ll always be grateful,” she explained. “Because, you know, life isn’t always easy when you have differences, and especially in a pandemic.”

engineering program face mask child autism
Photo: Facebook/Milford Engineering

During this most recent fitting, the students found that the 3D printed frame fit a bit too loosely on Kathryn. They will be making adjustments to the size before giving Kathryn the final product to use on the plane. “They don’t want to let her down,” said Leeper. The students have completed dozens of projects for children with special needs in the past, Leeper continued. “[The students] love it because they recognize that their work is meaningful.”

Not only are the students providing Kathryn with a design that allows her to safely participate in society again, but they’ve given Ferrara a great gift as well. As a single mom, Ferrara and Kathryn have a very close, unbreakable bond. Now that Kathryn will have a way to protect herself and others from the virus when in public, Ferrara can bring her along to grocery stores, doctors appointments, the gym, and more. “It gives me faith and hope in… humankind, because it’s been, kind of, such an ugly few years and then these kids just remind me how beautiful most people are on the inside.”

Soon Kathryn will be off to her retreat with her one-of-a-kind face mask, and the students will turn their attention to another child in need. The engineering program has a meeting with another family in just a few short weeks, with the only goal being to help someone. “When [the students] meet the children that we help,” said Leeper, “they just fall in love.”

To learn more about the Milford High School engineering program, and see the other great inventions they’ve created to help children in need, be sure to check out their Facebook page!

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