Building Castles out of Cardboard

Corrugated cardboard, Elmer’s glue, wooden barbecue skewers, and paper bags might sound like a supply list for a summer camp crafts session. But those basic items can change a child’s life.

Former Ithaca professor Kit Frank and her husband Bob Frank ’73, along with Alana Murphy ’10, M.S. ’11, have been using these same items to practice cardboard carpentry in Ibarra, Ecuador, to aid special needs children—and collaborating with those children’s families and other locals to pass on the craft.

The project started with an “a-ha” moment in 2008, shortly after Kit, an occupational therapist, and Bob, an orthotist and prosthetist, volunteered to open Prosthetics for Life, the first prosthetics and orthotics workshop in the region. (No strangers to the area, the Franks first visited the country in the ’80s to work with Ecuador’s Hermano Miguel Foundation, which offers programs for disabled individuals. “We would go to Ecuador for two weeks at a time, but that fell off as we raised our kids and sent them to college,” says Bob.)

In Ibarra, the couple quickly put to use donations from the Rotary Club of Concord, California, which had been sitting in storage. Most of their patients were young adults who had lost limbs in a traumatic accident, rather than a planned amputation following illness, as is more often the case in the United States. “We’re working with people who have been waiting for 10 years for prosthetic care,” says Bob. “We can immediately change someone’s life in a matter of two or three days.”

Among the crowds were families of children suffering from cerebral palsy, in search of braces. Kit says she saw many children in ill-fitting wheelchairs meant for adults, while others without wheelchairs spent their time being carried on a parent’s back or set on the floor. To her, that meant they weren’t able to reach their full potential.

“I know from my training that when people are sitting in a good position and are well supported, they can do a lot more,” Kit says.

That observation sparked a memory—Kit had learned to make equipment from drywall cardboard, years ago. If she were able to re-learn the technique, she might be able to apply it in Ecuador. Kit went online in search of more up-to-date instruction, and found a 13-minute video tutorial from the Adaptive Design Association, a New York City-based group that designs and builds adaptive equipment for children. “The Internet was really bad there,” says Kit, who spent 90 minutes poised to take notes, waiting for the video to download. “I only got to watch it once.”

It was enough to get the Franks started. Glued together and cut to size, multiple layers of corrugated cardboard are sturdy enough to create a wheelchair insert that helps a disabled child sit upright, or a seat for a child who doesn’t have a wheelchair. “It really caught on,” Kit says. “When you’re done, it looks like a wooden box, and you can paint it. It’s beautiful.”

The same cardboard carpentry techniques can also be used to craft standing desks and tables, head supports and wheelchair trays, among other items customized for a particular child’s needs. The materials cost next to nothing, and from start to finish, the equipment can be crafted in a matter of hours.

Initially skeptical, families became excited about the idea as they saw the results.

“Most of the patients or parents were not aware that a wheelchair should be anything more than a set of wheels, and did not realize that it should also be comfortable, well-fitting, in good repair and functional,” Kit says. “They also did not realize that their child could do so much more if well supported. Now that we have a reputation for problem-solving wheelchair and positioning problems, people do come to us with problems, ideas and specific needs.”

Local funding and a workshop devoted to the cardboard carpentry followed, as well as courses and other efforts to teach patients’ families and local social workers to create and maintain the cardboard equipment. “Our clinic is often crowded and people join in in each other's care,” Kit says. “Whole families come and participate in the evaluation and fitting… everyone gains knowledge and ideas from everyone else.”

(Kit, in turn, starred in her own video tutorial on cardboard carpentry for Adaptive Design, created by documentary filmmakers Blind Lyle Films. The three minute, 15-second spot earned a finalist nod in YouTube’s “Do Gooder Video Awards.”)

She also took the techniques back to her classes at Ithaca College, where then-student Alana saw cardboard carpentry as an opportunity worth pursuing. “My plan all along was to do volunteer work internationally, and I really only wanted to be involved in projects that were sustainable,” she says. She said she knew she’d found that in the Franks’ cardboard carpentry. “It’s incredible to know that work can continue when we’re not there.”

After graduation, Alana worked in occupational therapy at a children’s hospital and saved up, aiming to take her skills abroad. She kept in touch with the Franks and arranged to join them in Ecuador for two months during the spring of 2013. To prepare, Alana traded volunteer time at Adaptive Design in exchange for training in cardboard carpentry. “I spent as much time as possible at their facility,” she says.

Still, it was a challenge to arrive and begin training courses with families immediately—learning Spanish along the way. “What I experienced working with the cardboard is that it’s a process where you don’t have to be right,” says Alana. “It can be a constant work in progress, trial and error.” She and the Ecuadoran families were learning the skill together to some extent, she says, which helped them all to take risks, innovate and collectively improve.

“As an occupational therapist, one of the principles of our profession is that we heal by doing,” Alana says. In the United States, that’s more about giving a patient the right equipment. In Ecuador, it’s a more intensive, hands-on process, which makes the work more valuable, she says.

Alana’s next endeavor was a stint with a hospital in Israel to enhance her pediatric skills, but she says she plans to return to Ecuador. In the meantime, she’s continued volunteering for Adaptive Design in New York City and is writing an article about cardboard carpentry for OT Practice, an industry journal. “Even in the U.S. there are needs for this skill,” she says.

Now that the Franks are both retired and living in Asheville, North Carolina, they say they plan to make more frequent, longer trips to work in Ibarra. They’re also working to secure more financial donations for the clinic. Although it has been open continuously since 2008, recent gaps in funding have meant it remained closed in 2013 when they weren’t on site.

The cardboard carpentry workshop, however, remains in operation year round, thanks to local workers trained in the craft and families who have learned the skill. “Cardboard carpentry has a very bright future,” Kit says.

Former Ithaca professor Kit Frank, her husband Bob Frank 73, and Alana Murphy 10, M.S. 11, use household items to aid special needs children.