Under the yellow-tinted lights of Northern Arizona University’s old gym, 11 shiny, new blue cars zoomed past one another on the tracks, making it hard to see the Frozen and Finding Nemo stickers stamped on their sides.
Behind the steering wheels were kids under the age of 5, laughing and squealing at their chance to finally feel the wind against their faces as they raced around the gym floor.
“She comes alive; it brought me so much hope as a mother,” said Shannon Drager, whose 4-year-old daughter, Zxynthia, could only lie on her tummy until she sat in her brand new toy car.
NAU played host to the first Go Baby Go program in Arizona on Friday at the Fieldhouse. At the kickoff, 11 families of children with disabilities met with engineering students, professors and health professionals to tweak ride-on toy cars to fit each child’s needs.
“(Go Baby Go) is an international program aimed at providing mobility to kids with mobility disabilities,” said Kyle Winfree, assistant professor of informatics and computing at NAU. “We’re trying to take a toy and adapt it so that it’s now a therapy-through-play-enabling toy to allow these kids to have control over what they do in getting around.”
After modifications, the ride-on toy cars cost between $300 and $500 each, but the families were able to take the cars home free of charge. The engineers also modified another car at the event, which will be donated to Northland-Rural Therapy Associates for its patients.
AGES 1 TO 3
For this kick-off event, the group chose to focus on the same type of car for, roughly, the same-sized child – most of the children were between the ages of 1 and 3, but they were chosen based on their size and disability.
The families pre-registered for the build session on Facebook after being referred to the page by their physical or occupational therapists, whom Winfree considers instrumental in finding the families who need these cars.
“It’s an invaluable experience for the kids, the families and the therapists. It’s giving these kids the opportunity to move and have freedom, independence and play all at the same time,” said Farren Muscarella, a pediatric physical therapist in Flagstaff. “You can really tell by the smiles on their faces and the tears in people’s eyes when you look around that it’s an awesome thing.”
Among the kids to receive a car was James Barton, 1, who had a five-point harness inserted around his seat to support his tiny body. Brodie Bille, 3, also received a car, which was rewired so that he had the option to work on his weak left foot or take a break by pushing the button in the middle of the steering wheel to get the car moving.
Eventually, Winfree, who heads the new program in Flagstaff, hopes to cover a wider range of children. There are between 60 and 70 different varieties of ride-on toy cars for children between the ages of 8 months and 8 years old, he said.
“We want to cover a broad spectrum, but today we decided we were going to start with one little slice,” Winfree said.
BRIDGING THE GAP
According to Winfree, a power wheelchair costs families between $15,000 and $25,000 and most states don’t approve power wheelchairs to children until they are 5 years old.
“If 5 is the magic age where kids can get mobility, this can bridge that gap,” Winfree said. “This gives them freedom in their living room to cruise around a little and choose what they want to look at, what to do, what to play with and all that good stuff.”
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Also, most insurance companies will only approve one powered wheelchair every five years and will not cover the costs of things associated with the chair, such as equipment that makes them vehicle accessible, said Winfree.
“The Go Baby Go cars are not a medical device, but it fills a need,” Winfree said.
COCO HIGH GRAD RETURNS
Winfree attended Coconino High School and graduated from NAU, which is why he wanted to start a Go Baby Go program in Flagstaff. He attended graduate school at the University of Delaware, where he met program founder James Cole Galloway.
The Go Baby Go program originally started when Galloway finished research that showed that young kids could drive mobile robots with a joystick. However, when the research ended, there were only two $10,000 robots and numerous kids that needed them.
Galloway and his team began hacking ride-on toy cars, and now there are 60 international chapters that have launched the Go Baby Go program.
“It wasn’t the toy robots that made the kids have great results, it was the fact that they were independently mobile,” Galloway said.
The Flagstaff build session was funded by a sponsor in Delaware – where the Go Baby Go program was born. Donors gave $10,000 to cover the cost of the cars and the tools needed to modify the cars. So far, there are two donors committed to Go Baby Go’s future in Flagstaff, but there is a need for more Northern Arizona sponsors.
“Five hundred dollars buys a car for one family, so as little as somebody who sponsors one car would help,” Winfree said. “If we can provide this at no cost or a low cost to the families, that’s really a direct benefit right away.”
Winfree hopes to make an informal club on campus for any undergraduate students who are interested in participating. He hopes they will build a car once a month for families in need.
“There is already a waitlist for the cars,” Winfree said. “So there is no doubt that there’s a need in northern Arizona. It’s absolutely here.”
There would be two aspects to the club: a monthly community service project aimed at building the cars and a research component for motivated students who show interest in a long-term project. The club would be funded through donations for building the cars and grants to fund the research.
Four of his students are already working on the research stage for their capstone projects, which began in September and will end in May 2016.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said Colm Corr, a student at NAU whose 1-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor and hospitalized for almost a year, which caused him to become developmentally delayed. “It’s certainly going to put a smile on his face.”
Corr is one of the four students who will be researching the Go Baby Go car for his capstone project; he plans to use sensors that will collect data about his son’s mobility.
“I’m trying to make this an outreach opportunity for these students to build for the kids and actually see the real-world impact of what they’re doing,” Winfree said.
This story has been changed from the original to reflect a change in the age and disability of Colm Corr's son.
“She comes alive; it brought me so much hope as a mother,”
--Shannon Drager, mother of Zxynthia, 4