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Modified toy cars give kids with special needs a new way to get around

Mallory White, a physical therapy student from Rockhurst University, guided Trace Bales, 3, as he drove his new battery powered car down the hall at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired. As part of a program called Go Baby Go KC, students in the physical therapy program have been modifying off-the-shelf cars for children with special needs.
Mallory White, a physical therapy student from Rockhurst University, guided Trace Bales, 3, as he drove his new battery powered car down the hall at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired. As part of a program called Go Baby Go KC, students in the physical therapy program have been modifying off-the-shelf cars for children with special needs. The Kansas City Star

Amy Bales of Independence watched with anticipation as her son’s physical therapists lifted the boy from his wheelchair and placed him in a specially modified battery-powered toy car.

“Want to go for a ride?” said Danielle Schulte of the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired, 31st and Main streets.

Although 3 years old, Trace Bales does not talk. He can crawl but cannot walk on his own. Visually impaired from the trauma and neglect that put him in foster care and from which Bales, a children’s minister, adopted him, Trace can barely see more than 6 inches from his nose.

“Ready to go?” said Schulte, 38. She placed the boy’s right hand on a big red accelerator button at the center of the steering wheel.

He drove. He smiled. He pressed the button again and again, zipping in starts and stops down the polished hallway of the center.

Trace’s ride came courtesy of Go Baby Go KC. The initiative, led by a professor of physical therapy at Rockhurst University, modifies electric toy cars for children who are physically and developmentally disabled. The cars, purchased for less than $100 at Wal-Mart and other stores, offer an alternative to motorized wheelchairs that cost $15,000 to $20,000.

“This is really wonderful,” said Bales, 38. She beamed while watching her son move on his own for the first time without help.

“This is a low-tech and accessible way to get kids moving,” said Kendra Gagnon, 36, an associate professor of physical therapy at Rockhurst who is leading the effort. “Our goal is to build a car for every kid in Kansas City who needs one. That’s what we want to do.”

The idea to refit cars — adding buttons instead of foot pedals, using foam swim noodles and padded PVC pipes for seat support — is hardly Kansas City’s alone. Gagnon said Go Baby Go KC is patterned on the original Go Baby Go program that emerged a few years ago based on work by Cole Galloway, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Delaware.

Galloway’s idea to refit small, 6-volt toy cars for mobility had come as an offshoot to the National Science Foundation-backed research he was doing on robotics and movement. Research shows that when disabled children gain the ability to move about and travel on their own, exploring their environment, they benefit in multiple ways, Galloway said in an interview this week.

Spirit and mood improves, he said, but so do language and overall brain development.

“It is really about how mobility impacts children’s lives,” Galloway said.

Seeing more, hearing more and exploring more expands kids’ minds, he said. Parents and adults talk more, even if it is just to warn children to be careful and not move so fast.

“There is an explosion of cognition,” Galloway said. “Language goes through the roof. It’s a huge trigger.”

Galloway now spends much time traveling to teach others to start Go Baby Go programs. Some 33 programs exist nationally and in cities in Canada, Brazil, Israel, Poland, Spain and New Zealand.

Gagnon was inspired to begin the Go Baby Go KC program at Rockhurst about six months ago after she and Schulte attended a Galloway presentation and workshop in Topeka. The Go Baby Go website out of the University of Delaware offers wiring and other instructions.

Schulte bought and rewired four cars herself for use at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired. Gagnon enlisted the help of Rockhurst engineering students to rewire four additional cars, the first of which was given a week ago to J.D. Horbelt of Liberty.

Now 17 months old, J.D. was born with a form of spina bifida, a neural tube defect in which the spinal nerves push out of the spinal column and are exposed and often damaged. Before J.D. was born, surgeons closed the hole in his spine.

The operation saved him from some severe complications, but not all.

“Right now he is 17 months old and he is just getting to the point where he is crawling on this knees,” said his mother, Ana Horbelt. “I hope he will walk, but there is no guarantee of that.”

Gagnon contacted Horbelt and asked whether she might be interested in a car. Rockhurst engineering students used padded PVC tubing to help protect and support J.D.’s body. A $60 big-button accelerator switch was placed on the steering wheel.

Horbelt said her family has created a small indoor track in their basement.

“It helps with his hand-eye coordination,” she said. “It’s giving him the ability to keep up. He’s a kid, a baby, and he wants to do all the things any baby his age can do. The car gives him the ability to motor around.”

Gagnon said she hoped to rewire and restructure more cars and has applied to Rockhurst for a grant to support some initial work. The two other cars, she said, will be delivered next week to children in the Raytown School District.

But her greater hope, she said, is to enlist the public to donate money or cars or their expertise, particularly in electrical wiring or engineering. The toy cars, she said, generally cost $100 or less. The accelerator switches cost about $60.

Gagnon set up an email address, gobabygokc@rockhurst.edu, for those who want to help or donate. Schulte, likewise, said she is willing to help reconfigure cars for any child served at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired as long as others can supply the car and other parts.

“We want to keep doing this,” Gagnon said. “We really hope this grows and becomes a project that is sustainable.”

Bales said that at her home, she has six other children, one in foster care and five adopted out of foster care, including two diagnosed with degrees of autism and some with behavioral disorders. Knowing that Trace has greater freedom of movement, she said, can only make his life better.

Pressing his red button, he sped down the hallway.

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to eadler@kcstar.com.

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