As a young boy growing up on his parents' farm in Altoona, Iowa, a small town that back then was far from the bustling Des Moines suburb it has become, Jon Turnquist '92, '10 MOL relished the days he got to stand alongside his father in his blacksmith shop.
"It took away my hearing, but it made me good with tools," he said one morning with a chuckle, having just stepped away from a one-on-one laboratory session with one of his occupational therapy students. "I was welding when I was 10 years old, using equipment much larger than I was. My dad called it ‘helping out.' Today they'd probably say it's a violation of child labor laws."
Those early days tinkering with tools and designing machines next to his father, who Turnquist said was his first and greatest mentor, left a lasting mark on his childhood-and gave him his life's direction.
Today, just as he did years ago with his father, Turnquist works side-by-side with students. Together, they are imagining new ways to modify an environment and give independence to the disabled. Their work moves far beyond theory - they are putting it into practice and changing lives in the process.
Turnquist, a clinical assistant professor and the director of the assistive technology lab at St. Ambrose University, said, "Several years ago, Kristen (Blake) Mandle '07, '08 MOT was working as a home aid for a family with a daughter who had frequent seizures during the night. The mother wasn't sleeping, worried that her daughter would have a seizure and she wouldn't wake up to help her. Kristen brought the issue to our lab, and together we built a computerized seismic apparatus that could rest on her daughter's bed. When the computer recognizes a vibration on the mattress, sensors turn lights on and sound an alarm alerting the family of the situation.
"You see, it's not just the handicapped we're helping," Turnquist continued. "We're affecting whole families."
This fall, St. Ambrose opened Jim's Place, an assistive technology "solutions" house that showcases and features adaptations for persons with disabilities. The home will be used not just to teach students, but to also grow awareness among therapists around the region of the possibilities that exist for their patients. The home is named in honor of the late James O'Rourke, who became a quadriplegic after suffering an injury in 1963. At the dedication of Jim's Place, Jim's brother Joe O'Rourke '72, came up to Turnquist and asked where he was in 1963 (he wasn't born yet). "We needed this place back then," O'Rourke said.
"The O'Rourke family partnered with us on Jim's Place so that others don't have to work so hard to know what's out there-to understand what is actually possible."
A woman recently told Turnquist that when her husband lost functionality, they sold their house and moved to a more accessible home.
"If this space had been here years ago, they would have realized the last thing they needed to do was sell their house," Turnquist said. "Perhaps that's the best thing about Jim's Place.
"It's not just a wonderful laboratory space for our students and faculty. It's a place where anything is possible. It's a place where people from all walks of life can learn how easy it is to adapt tools and toys and whole homes for a particular need. We aren't just making it work-we are making it work for someone."