They lost friend to out-of-control car in JoCo. Robotics team finds a way to honor her

Hundreds attend vigil for 14-year-old middle school student killed by car driving on sidewalk

Hundreds of people attended a vigil to remember 14-year-old student Alex Rumple. Rumple died Sunday from injuries she suffered Friday when she was hit by a car as she walked on the sidewalk on her way home from school .
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Hundreds of people attended a vigil to remember 14-year-old student Alex Rumple. Rumple died Sunday from injuries she suffered Friday when she was hit by a car as she walked on the sidewalk on her way home from school .

There were two Alexes on the Red Hot Techie Peppers robotics team, so Alexandra “Alex” Rumple’s teammates often called her Sasha, a nickname the 14-year-old’s mother had given her.

Though the eighth grader went to Oxford Middle School in Blue Valley, she had quickly found her place in the tight-knit group of high school and middle school students who compete in robotics competitions for Kansas City’s Learn science and math club.

She earned another nickname — Master Box Maker — because during a season where team members were challenged to make box-like robots that could receive and deliver blocks and balls, Alex skillfully made dozens.

When she’d finish, her wry humor would come out.

“Look, I made a box,” she’d say each time, to the amusement of her coach, Rebecca Kidwell, and her teammates.

That humor endeared her to her teammates in other ways. She nicknamed a robot “The Foxy Box” and another “The Boxy Fox.”

Alex, who joined the team at the start of seventh grade, was even talented at the tasks she didn’t enjoy too much. Like the computer-assisted design work that her team came to rely on her for, even if it sometimes made her grumble.

“She was good at it,” Kidwell said. “And she was good-hearted enough to keep doing it.

On April 14, Alex’s team gathered in shock at an emergency meeting. Alex had been struck by an out-of-control car as she walked home from her Overland Park school two days earlier. At the meeting, Kidwell said, the team learned that Alex had died of her injuries.

The group was supposed to leave that day for Houston to compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge World Championships.

Instead, as hundreds of students, parents and teachers gathered at a school vigil to mourn the “artistic” and “wise” straight-A student who played trumpet in the band as well as sports, team members wondered whether they should or could compete without her.

Kidwell said the team decided to do their “very best to live up to our promises” and go to Houston.

“We felt like the only thing they really could do is try to live up to her goals, our goals and keep our commitments,” Kidwell said.

But they also decided something else. For the past three years, the club has brought together its own members as well as community engineers, roboticists and programmers to build little cars for kids with mobility limitations to ride in.

The program, called Geeks for Kids, creates the cars specifically to a child’s needs. Last year, Geeks for Kids produced 12 cars. This year, participants, including the Techie Peppers, hoped to double that. But to meet that goal, they need money.

An online fundraising page made earlier this year shares the story of Jerry, a 4-year-old who cannot walk because when he was 2, a car drove over him, injuring his spine. His insurance denied him a motorized wheelchair.

Geeks for Kids made the boy a customized hot rod that allows him to play outside with other kids.

“Now, Jerry is zooming around his yard and neighborhood in the car we built, and his friends compete to ride with him,” the fundraiser reads.

Four-year-old Jerry cannot walk because of a spinal injury caused by a car that drove over him when he was 2. But he has used a hot rod made by Geeks for Kids to play with other children. GoFundMe

Alex and her teammates were not just preparing for the world championships, they were in the middle of the Geeks for Kids build season, where the club’s members and mentors plan, customize and make the cars they’ve raised money to create.

After her death, the team decided to dedicate the Geeks for Kids season to Alex, who the team said in an online update had played an “integral part” of the program last year along with her dad, Aaron, the director of design for Yaeger Architecture.

They plan to honor her at a car assembly event planned for Saturday at the Dean’s Downtown Underground warehouse.

Kidwell said that in the wake of Alex’s death, the club has been flooded with volunteers to help build the cars. But Geeks for Kids can only make as many as it can pay for.

And with cars costing $750 to $1,500 each, club members have thrown their energy into raising money, appealing to corporate sponsors and finding kids who would benefit from the program. More information can be found at geeks.learnscienceandmathclub.org.

Already, donations in Alex’s name have poured in. And the team posted a tribute to Alex:

“She impressed us with her creativity, determination and problem-solving skills,” the team wrote. “And, she became a member of our ‘family’ as we worked, played, struggled and triumphed side by side for many hours each week.”

After the world championships last week, when the Red Hot Techie Peppers placed in the top third, Kidwell said the group drove an hour away to the beach for their own private memorial.

They stood in the ocean and hugged.

At some point that week, her teammates had adopted the motto, “Do it for Alex,” and there, standing in the surf, they remembered their friend.

The teammates expect the motto, Kidwell said, to be a lasting one.

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.