Taking Steps Toward Social Change

Published November 4, 2019

By: Mike Gluck

“Going into the Social Impact Fellows program, I had an idea that social work is where you maybe help those having trouble in their lives, maybe one on one. Leaving the program, I realize how complex it is.”
Derick Evans, PhD student in music composition

When he was 12 years old and living in Uganda, Sunday was abducted. He spent the next seven years as a child soldier, only gaining his freedom when he lost his left leg.

Sunday is far from alone. Experts estimate that there are 10 million amputees in developing countries, 90% of whom don’t get access to prosthetic devices The 10% who do often receive low-quality devices that do little to improve their quality of life.

Now in his 30s, Sunday recently received a prosthetic knee that has transformed nearly every aspect of his daily life. With his new knee, Sunday now has his own farm and can provide for his family.

“It’s so amazing!” says Sunday. “The knee is so smooth to walk, sit and climb—and it’s waterproof.”

Thanks to a company called LegWorks, and with a little help from the UB Social Impact Fellows program, millions of other amputees around the world may soon find new hope for a brighter future.

A small organization with a big mission

Sunday’s knee came from LegWorks—a Buffalo-based company and passionate about giving all amputees the mobility they deserve.

“We believe every amputee, no matter where they live, has the right to walk with confidence,” says Brandon Burke, the company’s co-founder and chief product officer.

LegWorks helps amputees in developing countries, where most patients cannot afford high-priced prosthetics, by selling the devices using a unique tiered-pricing model. The company depends on revenue from selling their full-price prosthetics in areas where people have insurance, to sell the devices at discounted prices to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), amputees and prosthetists in developing nations. Through this model, LegWorks has served more than 500 amputees in 19 developing countries.

Connecting with UB to go further

The LegWorks All-Terrain Knee does more than help people walk. A study in Tanzania found that the knee significantly increased mobility, quality of life and employment for amputees.

As a relatively new company (LegWorks was founded in 2014), one of the biggest obstacles for LegWorks was sharing their story, and letting amputees, NGOs and health care providers around the world know that a high-quality, affordable option was within their reach. That’s why LegWorks turned to UB for support.

The organization applied and was accepted to the UB Social Impact Fellows program—a unique initiative co-founded by the UB schools of Social Work and Management. Through the program, UB places blended teams of graduate students in internships with local mission-driven organizations. The students spent the summer of 2019 learning about LegWorks and the social issues it is addressing. They then put their unique experiences, knowledge and strengths together to find a solution to the challenge.

System change through social work

“They’re selling products for profit, but doing it in a way that is really revolutionizing the prosthetic industry,” says social work master’s student Delaney Voorheis, who interned with LegWorks this past summer through the Social Impact Fellows program. “They’re making a system change and supporting disability in developing countries. It does make a difference.”

Voorheis, who is also earning her law degree (JD), was paired at LegWorks with Derick Evans, a PhD student in music composition, and Abid Alam, an MBA student. Working together from the LegWorks’ office on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the team developed a series of resources and tools to help the organization market their prosthesis worldwide.

In just a few months, they delivered a summary of the organization’s business model and social impact, a preliminary report of the company’s work with dozens of amputees in Tanzania, and a dashboard that LegWorks can share on their website, enabling partners and potential investors to see the organization’s effect around the globe.

“LegWorks can now more clearly share the impact our prosthetic knees are having on the lives of amputees that have been fit by our partners in the developing world,” says Burke.

To highlight the life-changing potential of LegWorks’ prosthetics, the students focused on making the stories relatable, using everyday language instead of medical terms, and helping people understand the full significance of a new knee.

For MBA student Alam, it was important to go beyond the numbers.

“It’s not just about how many amputees were fitted with a prosthetic device,” he says. “It’s showing how the LegWorks device allowed them to go back to school and support their families.”

This focus on individuals reflects a core component in the UB School of Social Work.

“The UB curriculum is heavy on trauma-informed and human-rights perspectives, which helped us remember that behind all the key performance indicators and data points there are stories about human lives,” says Voorheis. “I was able to bring that to my team and remind them that these were real lives that we were pulling out.”

A unique initiative

The Social Impact Fellows program is a partnership between the UB School of Social Work, School of Management and operates in collaboration with UB’s Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars, a campus-based entrepreneurship center.

Through the program, master’s degree students in social work bring their trauma-informed and human rights perspective to the team. MBA students employ their business and leadership skills, while students from the College of Arts and Sciences offer research-based support.

During the 10-week summer program, the students spend 8 weeks on-site with the organization, and the rest of the time in coursework or team meetings learning how to identify and define social challenges, generate sustainable solutions, and practice entrepreneurial principles.

Lessons in collaboration

With their diverse academic backgrounds, each UB student was quick to praise what the others brought to the table. Music PhD student Evans appreciated Voorheis’ level-headed view and understanding of humanistic qualities, so inherent in social work practice.

“I learned a lot about creativity and being passionate about new ideas,” says Voorheis, who also recognized the opportunity to capitalize on other people’s strengths.

For the dean of UB’s School of Social Work, Nancy Smyth, PhD, this collaboration is an invaluable benefit of the Social Impact Fellows program.

“It sounds like the setup for a joke—a music composer, an MBA student and a social work student walk into a room,” says Dean Smyth. “But these types of collaborations are exactly why UB started the Social Impact Fellows (SIF) program—to help socially driven organizations achieve further success, and to prepare our students for life-changing careers. The Legworks CEO told me that the SIF team was the highest impact student team they’ve ever had, and that the diversity of perspectives was key to this impact.”

The students did have one thing in common right from the start: a shared passion for making an impact. Voorheis previously spent nearly a year volunteering with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. Evans had organized a fundraiser for Friends of Night People, a Buffalo-based organization that serves the homeless. Alam watched his father start a sustainable farming operation in their Bangladesh village, then use the profits to fund a school.

Thinking differently about the future

Reflecting on their time as Social Impact Fellows, the students explained how they expect these experiences to shape their personal and professional lives moving forward.

“It’s not just about making money or profit; it’s about how you uplift people in those communities,” says Alam. “It really boils down to what we’re going to do with our fancy degrees.”

As Voorheis completes her master’s, she’s confident that her experience as a Social Impact Fellow will continue to pay dividends.

“I’m not really sure what I want to do with my degree, probably something in environmental justice,” she says. “But now I have the skills to be creative and think innovatively when tackling large-scale issues.”