Jack Orchard provides ‘Extra Hands’ for those who need assistance


Every once in a while, if you’re very lucky, you’ll meet someone so inspirational that your perspective on life will change. That person is Jack Orchard.

Diagnosed seven years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord resulting in muscle weakness and atrophy, this remarkable young man has accomplished more since his diagnosis than many people will in a lifetime.

Shortly after Orchard was diagnosed with the disease, he started a non-profit organization called Extra Hands for ALS. This association coordinates high school and college students and volunteers on a weekly basis who help people with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, take care of various day-to-day household activities. But there’s more to Extra Hands. By all accounts, it would seem the purpose of Extra Hands is to help people with ALS. However, as is typical with Orchard, it’s not that narrow-focused. His purpose for Extra Hands is to help society at large.

The official mission of the organization, from its brochure and Web site, indicates its higher purpose: To instill the importance of community service and develop leadership qualities in young adults by uniting them with people, and their families, who have ALS.

“I wanted to show how the program is a working model of a core humanistic tenet: that if we all work to bring out the best in others we get the best in life,” Orchard said. “Extra Hands is a real-life enactment of that principle. A program like this can smooth the religious divide created by the religious right and other problems we have facing our planet.”

Orchard says that Extra Hands has implications beyond helping ALS families. “It could be used for people with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke victims. ALS affects 30,000 families, Parkinson’s 1 million, and Alzheimer’s affects 4.5 million. As the Baby Boomers age, those numbers will double by 2025 and triple by 2040. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will all be affected by this.”

Orchard’s ambitious view of how one organization can affect a society is right in step with his general philosophy of life, even as he struggles to maintain his own.

“I realized a few years ago that I had spent my life devoted to my own prosperity up to that point and I wondered one day what would my life have meant if I dropped dead right then. The answer was ‘not much.’ So I started down my current path in search of meaning and that path has led me to here.”

His humble assessment of his life prior to Extra Hands belies a past full of triumphs and successes. “He was captain of the football team when he was at John Burroughs High School and received early admission to Harvard University,” Robert “Bob” Orchard, Jack’s proud father, said while ticking off his son’s accomplishments. “Jack graduated in the top of his class from Harvard; got selected with a classmate out of 5,000 candidates to work at a European world bank in London; started the very first private investment bank in Russia; and while working in Russia he got his Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University, graduating top in his class, going back and forth to Russia and California every six weeks. He’s one of these remarkable people. He’s my hero.” Jack also founded and managed numerous firms including iSpringboard Advisors, a venture capital firm, and Red Square Software, a software company.

However, Orchard says his greatest feat is Extra Hands. “The rest is just garbage compared to it,” he said.

He’s also written a book. Extra Hands, Grasping for a Meaningful Life is Orchard’s account of his extraordinary and often exotic life. From working on an archeological dig in Greece as a young teenager to starting the bank in Russia, Orchard tells a compelling story of a fascinating life, punctuated with descriptions of how ALS invaded it. However, that’s not how he sees the book. “I wrote it to explain why I started Extra Hands,” Orchard said.

He also wants people to realize through his book that his mission is bigger than helping people with ALS. “We, as a society, don’t have to be so divided or divisive,” he said. He wants people to know that Extra Hands is inviting everyone to participate in it. “It has enormous potential to help others.” Finally, he wants the reader to know that he’s not an unusual person.

“God forbid people think I’m a hero for what I’ve done. I need Extra Hands like I need food and water.”

In the book, Orchard seamlessly weaves references to the great thinkers of the world, from the French philosopher Blaise Pascal to Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, while he details his encounters with life. His obvious intellect pours out of each sentence and a quick look around the bookcases in his study reveals a consummate reader of great works. Orchard also speaks in the book about his religious upbringing at Temple Emanuel. “Judaism was and still is for me a cultural identity, a connection to a collective history, and a set of values.”

What makes this interview and the book even more remarkable is that Orchard conducted it, and wrote the book, without ever speaking a word with his mouth or using his hands to type a sentence. When all those muscles betrayed him, he started to use an Eyegaze Communication System. This technologically-sophisticated equipment tracks his eye movements as they scan the on-screen keyboard. He has become so skilled using it that he now types faster than some people who use the hunt-and-peck keyboard method.

Orchard is an example of someone who out-performs statistics. In 2001, a doctor told him he’d be dead in 2006. The rulebook says a patient needs a ventilator full-time when his forced vital capacity is below 15%. “So, here I am below 10% and I feel fine,” he said. “No headaches or foggy thinking.” Those last two words are an understatement. The work he’s continuing to do is evidence of his mental acuity. He’s the chair and founder of the Jack Orchard ALS Foundation along with Extra Hands, and in addition to his book, he also wrote a screenplay at the request of a fellow Stanford alum.

His main role with Extra Hands is fund raising. “Like most charities, we never have enough money and we also have a high-class problem,” Orchard said. “The Extra Hands program is so popular that we could easily spend 10 times what we have and not even come close to satisfying all of it. We get two to three requests a week from all 50 states and various foreign countries to open new chapters.” He tracks down funds through major gifts, grants, sponsorships and grassroots work. Orchard does most of the grant writing. In order to meet the demands of the upcoming fiscal year, he says Extra Hands could use $500,000.

Orchard wants others who are similarly diagnosed to know that they don’t have to be victims. “You can be a teacher and an example,” he said. “Sure there are no words to describe how tragic it is but we all have the ability to find something redeeming in it. To make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” He also has a message for people in general: “Take advantage of what you have. It sounds obvious but life is precious and unbelievably fragile. It’s incredibly easy to take it for granted and squander it.”