Stevens Institute students design device to help a family

Peter Vacca and 9-year-old Valentina Chichizola are good friends. Chichizola’s big sister takes her to visit him after school. Valentina heard about Peter for the first time from her godfather who went to his 30th birthday party.

“I felt really bad that he couldn’t do things that I could do because I heard that he was in a wheelchair,” Chichizola said.

“He’s very happy, but he needs help with everything, going to the bathroom, to eating, to bathing. And he’s getting heavier and we’re getting older, and everything can help us,” Peter’s mom, Mary Vacca said.

This 9-year-old wanted to help, so she asked her grandmother if she could take her to see her boss, Frank Fisher, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.

“Valentina approached me in the beginning of the fall semester and said she had a great idea for a senior design project. So she demanded that we sit down and meet and talk about it,” Fisher said.

A group of mechanical engineers at the school heard about the Vacca family and invented a device that helps to lift people who are in a wheelchair or elderly in and out of a bathtub.

“All last semester was prototyping and theoretical design calculations. And then this semester we actually took the time to build it,” said senior Emma Sennett-Kuzin.

Their device was on display, along with roughly 140 other capstone projects, at Stevens’ annual Innovation Expo. Each solves a problem in different fields like business, health care and security. One team said they’re going to Florida to present their idea to NASA.

“The goal of our project is to generate an artificial gravity like crude transport to get people to and from Mars,” said senior Geoffrey Ely.

The Vacca family was taking it all in as the group of students who built the device took a group picture.

“Once we have it installed in our bathroom, it’s going to make our life so much easier because the chair can go right into the bathroom now and they’ll be no more lifting him up and down,” said Peter’s dad, Peter Vacca.

The students told Peter’s father they named their invention PETE because it was inspired by his son. All thanks to one determined 9-year-old girl who wanted to help a stranger that she now calls a friend.