Challenge America Makers for Veterans held its fall 2019 closing ceremony Nov. 11 at the Global Center for Health Innovation in downtown Cleveland, where prototypes presented ranged from an extra-skeletal hand grip to solutions for biking with a service dog and managing finances and depression.

Developed to create solutions for injured veterans, the organization started this project by identifying the needs of 10 veteran participants.

On Nov. 8, CAMVETS matched these veteran participants with experts to create a solution. After the initial solution drafting session, there was a three-day "make-a-thon" to develop a product to address their veteran teammate’s needs.

One project was a Harley-Davidson Trike that had been modified so an army and marine corps veteran who lost his left leg could ride a motorcycle again.

“When he was about to be deployed for his last time, he went out for a bike ride and he was taken out by a drunk driver and he lost his left leg in the accident,” said Shlomo Heifetz, director of operations at Presque Isle Medical Technologies with numerous locations, including Beachwood. The veteran said “his dream would be to get back on a bike again. He hasn’t been on a bike for eight years.”

Heifetz was part of the team that modified the bike and worked on adjustments to hold the veteran’s prosthetic leg in place while also allowing him to straddle the motorcycle.

Dallas Blaney, executive director of Colorado-based U.S. Veterans organization, Challenge America, got the inspiration for this event while participating in a similar project for Tel Aviv based nonprofit, Restart, which connects soldiers to a community of business executives, entrepreneurs and makers.

“That’s what inspired us and we immediately saw the potential for it given the size – the magnitude of our injured veteran population. I mean, it almost exceeds the entire population of Israel,” Blaney said. At the end of the day, it’s not about the products, prototypes or “whiz-bang technology,” Blaney explained, it’s about the community.

Looking around the room, Blaney pointed out high school students, university professors, CEOs and government employees.

“The entire spectrum of society is more or less represented here, and these are people who otherwise wouldn’t, perhaps, come together for any other purpose except to support veterans,” Blaney said. “What we’ve done is not to create products. What we’ve done is we’ve found the secret key and we found it in Israel to unlock community and steer that pent up energy – that latent energy – towards veterans and their families, where it should be directed, which was so exciting to me.”

Noting Cleveland’s Jewish community has embraced this cause, Blaney said its support enabled the organization to bring an injured Israel Defense Forces veteran to Cleveland to address a challenge they’re facing.

“That means the world to us because we’re a very small nonprofit, extraordinarily small,” Blaney said. “To do this is a huge lift for us, but the community here just rallied around us and helped ease that burden and we couldn’t be more grateful.”

Asked why the Colorado-based organization hosted this event in Cleveland, Blaney said he had a network in Cleveland and the more he considered the city, the more it made sense.

Noting Cleveland is home to the third-largest U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs “with a huge innovation center built in,” Blaney also identified the Sears think[box] at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and Cleveland Clinic as having drawn him to the city.

Describing Cleveland as an engine of health care innovation with an “amazing manufacturing base,” Blaney said, “The other piece about Cleveland (is) the neighborliness, the Midwestern nice that’s made it so much easier ... to come into this place. It’s the largest small town in the country.”

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