In a scene vaguely reminiscent of Santa’s Workshop, part of River Ridge Academy’s cafeteria was taken over by kid-sized electric cars, pool noodles, PVC tubes and duct tape.
Instead of elves, though, there were four students, a teacher and a pediatric therapist drilling holes, tightening bolts and adjusting adaptive parts for the intended drivers – all of them age 3 or younger who have physical issues that limit their ability to get around on their own.
It’s all part of Go Baby Go, an international organization that provides electric/remote control cars to children with special needs at no cost to the participants.
The Bluffton group is a satellite clinic of the 501(c)(3) Whole School STEM Foundation/Go Baby Go South Carolina.
Cheryl Rodriguez, a pediatric physical therapist, discovered the program while she was doing online research.
“This program was being held at a middle school in Charleston, so I called them and went up. It was so surprising to me,” she said.
Accompanied by a handful of River Ridge Academy students, she went up to Laing Middle School and helped them build, learning how to do modifications.
“They said we would love to have a satellite of our program if you would like to be a part of that,” she said, “and we have been building since June.”
For the students designing the adaptations, it’s a double win.
“We’re doing it because we wanted kids to have an equal opportunity to play and to move around,” said Aidan Masotti.
The students are part of Project Lead the Way, a program that focuses on engineering and computer science. Eric Mohrman, the River Ridge Academy teacher who heads Project Lead the Way, teaches STEM subjects under Gateway to Tech.
“It’s really great for the students because they learn a lot about the design process,” said Mohrman. “They find out what the children need, and then they design parts for each one.”
The vehicles can be modified to provide back and head supports, stabilize the occupant to keep them centered, add blocks to support their feet, and provide other modifications that make it easier for the child to operate the vehicle.
Five cars went out the door in this third session, for a total of 13 so far in the modified fleet.
The Bluffton satellite raised some money, received a $5,000 grant from the Hampton Hall Charitable Foundation to cover the children in Beaufort and Jasper counties, and then the Laing Middle School Whole School STEM Foundation provided the funding for children who come to Bluffton from other areas.
“The cars themselves cost around $180 to $200,” said Rodriguez. “Then we have to buy all the pipes and the buttons and whatever else we need to make it right for that particular child.”
Clay and Alisha Brendle brought their daughter Rhylee from North Carolina with his parents, who first learned about the Go Baby Go program from a post on Facebook.
“This will give Rhylee a way to move around, a little bit of independence,” said Alisha.
Rhylee, 3, has a number of severe ailments that prevent her from moving freely. It took time for the engineers to ensure she could safely and comfortably sit in her car. At one point she gave her father – who clearly dotes on her – the look that equated to “Are we there yet?”
The Pulkit family lives in Richmond Hill, Georgia, and were referred to the program by their doctor, who works in kinesiology at Georgia Southern. They sent Rodriguez an email and received a quick response.
“She was super helpful and set this up,” said Jen as the family waited for daughter Faye’s car to be prepared.
“She has a lot of spasticity issues and can’t walk yet,” said her father Chawla. “It makes a difference to be able to socialize. There are a lot of kids in our neighborhood so this will help get her out with them.”
Treyton “Trey” Simmons arrived with his family and was soon sitting in his car. Trey was born with half a heart, and at 19 months has already had three open heart surgeries, the first at 8 days old. His next will be at age 3.
Parents Trevor Simmons and Diamond Sanders were referred by their therapist to the Go Baby Go program. Simmons is a native of Hilton Head and the couple – who will be married soon – live in Bluffton.
“He is slowly reaching milestones, and is learning his motor skills,” said Sanders. “His brother loves to ride his bike, and we take walks in the evening, so this will give him more mobility. I’m blessed. This is so awesome.”
Rodriguez said the plan is to build three or four cars a year, but now the challenge is finding new drivers.
“Right now, we have money and we’re looking for kids, especially with some of the new technology we have,” she said. “We have a micro light-touch switch, and that would be for a child who doesn’t have much movement at all, but has a hand that could just kind of touch something. That would be enough to touch the button and make the car go.”
There was enough touching from Faye and Trey, who were jockeying for position on the cafeteria highway. In addition to the controls used by the child, a remote control is also provided to the family for the parent to override the car’s primary control.
With remote controls in hand, Chawla and Trevor tried to keep up with their young drivers, and it was hard to figure out who was having more fun – the dads or the motorists. It didn’t take very long before the drivers were getting the hang of pushing the right button to make their car go.
Who knows? By his parents’ wedding day, Trey could be driving up the aisle in a tuxedo.
For more information, leave a message at the Go Baby Go (Tangerine Tech) Facebook page.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.