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These men saw a need and now they make custom furniture for kids with special needs

Jim McAgy spreads glue in an early stage of assembling an adaptive piece.
Jim McAgy spreads glue in an early stage of assembling an adaptive piece.

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Serial entrepreneur Jim McAgy was casting about for ideas for his next company when his sister-in-law steered him toward an outfit called Adaptive Design Association. The New York nonprofit had been building furniture out of cardboard for children with disabilities for two decades. McAgy, of Wake Forest, had a furniture-making background. Intrigued at the possibilities, he recruited neighbor John Mainey and three other friends, and they all went to New York to learn the craft.

“That was in December of 2016,” Mainey recalls.

Within four months, the friends had incorporated their own nonprofit, called it Made4Me, and “we have been nonstop ever since,” McAgy says. The group builds chairs, tables, easels, step stools, and other adaptive pieces with a custom fit for each young client.

But – cardboard?

Yes, McAgy says. Sturdy tri-wall cardboard, assembled with glue and strengthened with internal wooden dowels, can be made to support hundreds of pounds and stand up to the abuse children will give it. “We go to extremes over-engineering these pieces,” he says.

The resulting pieces are strong, but nowhere near as heavy as manufactured furniture.

Stephanie Smith found that to be a huge advantage in the chair Made4Me built for her son Gabrial, who was born with a condition known as hypotonia. “They call it floppy baby syndrome,” Smith explains. “Basically no muscle tone.”

Smith found the group through Gabrial’s physical therapist, Brian Gentry. Gabrial, now 7, was one of Made4Me’s first clients. Though he spends much of his day in an elaborate powered wheelchair, Gabrial “likes to sit on the floor, he likes to watch TV,” Smith says. “We needed something so that he could be on the floor with his dad, just hanging out. When his dad comes home, it’s all about dad.”

The solution emerged in the form of a low chair, with supportive arm rests, decorated to celebrate the Dallas Cowboys. The chair’s back is tilted and equipped with a strap to accommodate Gabrial’s difficulty with trunk control and to keep him from falling forward.

“This is good,” Smith says, “because it’s lightweight and we could put it in the truck or our car. We take it anywhere.”

M4M Gabrial in chair.jpg
Gabrial Smith at age 5, with physical therapist Brian Gentry, when Gabrial first got his custom made floor sitter from Made4M3. Courtesy of Made4Me

Finding the right adaptive furniture from a commercial vendor challenges families in several way, Mainey says.

First, he says, “what they’re looking for for their loved one is hard to find. … If they can find it, then it’s sticker shock. This stuff is extremely expensive. … Then usually it’ll take months to get it.” And when the equipment finally arrives, it sometimes doesn’t quite meet the child’s needs.

“So what we’re doing with a simple thing like cardboard,” McAgy says, “is try and address all four of those things.”

The process begins with McAgy and his crew meeting the family and taking 20 different measurements of the child. They learn from the child’s parents and physical therapist what kind of adaption the child needs, then build it accordingly, allowing room for the child to grow. Finally, they paint the piece with colors and characters of the child’s choosing. On top of that, the group delivers the piece in four weeks.

“They’re awesome, John and his group,” Smith says. “They don’t ask for anything from you. … They just did it because they wanted to help Gabrial.”

With that observation, Smith touches on one of the group’s primary goals in the coming year: Fundraising, from both individual donors and corporate sponsors.

“The money has come out of my pocket and John’s pocket to get this moving,” McAgy says. Both are retired, though, and “we can’t continue pulling money out of our pockets to fund this.”

They tried to work out a system to bill clients. “But we didn’t feel right handing the parents an invoice because these parents are frazzled with their son or daughter that have these disabilities, and typically it’s severe when we get involved,” McAgy says. “And they have no money because they’ve spent it all with all the furniture, with all the therapy, the medications, everything.”

A $10,000 grant from Granville County United Way has helped, as have agreements with Granville County Public Schools and Conover School, part of Newton-Conover City Schools, to build easels and foot rests for kids with special needs. A paper company in Virginia donated a truckload of cardboard sheets. And Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh is donating a nickel to Made4Me every time a buyer declines a bag for their book.

Another pressing need, McAgy says, is a facility where they can do their work. McAgy, Mainey, and friend Ron Jones store cardboard and supplies in McAgy’s garage and assemble their chairs, tables, easels, and other items in Jones’s garage. The limited space allows them to put only a few volunteers to work at a time.

“It’s not as efficient as we’d like it to be,” Mainey says, “and it doesn’t allow us to go to the next step.”

Still, they welcome volunteers; McAgy will provide training. Eventually, he would like to offer employment, especially to people with special needs, building Made4Me pieces.

“I see us with 10,000 square feet years from now,” he says, “and producing all over the country, if not the world.”

Meanwhile, McAgy and friends are at work on 20 new pieces, nurturing big ambitions and doing what they can with what they’ve got.

“We’re looking to grow,” McAgy says. “We’re looking to help. And we’re looking to get the word out.”

Made4Me

5705 Barham Crossing Drive

Wake Forest, N.C. 27587

www.made4me.org

Contact: Jim McAgy, 708-932-1220 or info@made4me.org

Donations: Low-priced rental space is needed as as well as supplies, such as paints, glues, and hand tools, or money with which to purchase them.

$10 would buy one package of 3/16-inch dowels, one razor knife, one set of detailing paint brushes

$20 would buy one gallon of white glue, one package of sandpaper

$50 would buy one gallon of paint, two sheets of tri-wall cardboard, one gallon of polyurethane

Volunteers: Volunteers are needed to help fabricate items, or paint and detail them. Passionate and compassionate people also are needed for office duties such as a treasurer on the Board of Directors.

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