Just over two years ago, Rick Linet came across an article detailing how a high school robotics program modified an electric vehicle for a child with mobility challenges. Touched and intrigued, Linet’s background in social work, business, and teaching kicked in; he recognized the significance of the project to the child and family who otherwise might not have been afforded the ability to move due to the prohibitive price of a motorized wheelchair. This was too good a program for Rhode Island not to have, Linet decided.
Linet reached out to the University of Delaware’s Dr. Cole Galloway, founder of the national and international program known as GoBabyGo, which modifies ride-on cars (think: mini plastic toy Jeeps and VWs) for young kids with disabilities so that they can move independently. When Dr. Galloway gave Linet the go-ahead to form a Rhode Island chapter, he began to assemble a team, which came fortuitously together when he linked up with Dean Plowman, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Technology at New England Institute of Technology. Plowman arranged a meeting with what would become GoBabyGo RI’s interdisciplinary team: Cyndi Fuchs, Assistant Professor and Occupational Therapy Assistant, and Julie Laird, Occupational Therapy Instructor.
The chapter’s mission, Linet explains, is “to provide innovative, accessible, and practical options to improve the lives of children with limited mobility in the Southern New England area,” at no cost to the families thanks to grant funding and local business sponsors. The process begins with identifying potential recipients: “In order to qualify for a car, a child must have some sort of delay in mobility. This could be a child with a given diagnosis such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or just a development delay,” says Linet, who notes that children who walk, but are just not as steady on their feet or as quick as their peers, qualify, too.
“The idea is that every child learns about their environment through moving through it and making choices,” Linet explains. “A child who can’t move independently must rely on a caregiver to get them toys or bring them to where they can interact. The caregiver makes the decision for the child. Research has shown that the earlier a child is able to make decisions on what and who to play with, the stronger their cognitive, physical, and social development becomes.” The younger the child the better, Linet adds, so typically they cater to kids aged one through six, though they have accepted applications from older children as long as they are small enough to fit in the car.
Once the child is chosen, they are visited by the occupational therapy assistant faculty and students to assess which size car, switches, and seating options are needed. Then, those students meet with the electrical and mechanical engineering department who will design and build the final product. Behind the scenes, the automotive department is doing custom paint jobs, business and public health students are writing grants, and Linet is locating local sponsors. “The New England Tech program is unique in that it pushes the interprofessional collaboration of students in a variety of majors,” Linet says of this multi-faceted project.
Finally, the day comes for presenting the finished car to the eager child and family. Each placement is humbling and gratifying, Linet says, but one especially stood out: “A particular young girl with a disability that prevented her from moving many of her joints but especially her legs; she literally had to pull herself with her arms to scooch on her bottom to get from place to place. With the help of a GoBabyGo RI Jeep, she was able to socialize and play with her peers. The huge smile on her face was heartwarming and so rewarding to see.”
Since 2019, including scheduled builds, GBGRI has provided cars to 20 children through individual families as well as those given to the Cornerstone School and Sensation Station pediatric therapy center, which were built by William Davies Career & Technical High School students through an engineering mentorship program. During the pandemic, with the lack of New England Tech students present, operations had to scale back significantly, but Linet is looking forward to getting back on track as campus reopens this summer.
“Currently there are not any viable alternatives for young children with mobility issues other than our program,” Linet begins. “The ability to provide a means – a very child-friendly one, I may add – for children to mobilize, participate in their environment in a way they could not before, has a major impact.”
That impact is felt most deeply by the child and his or her family. Says Crystal Greene, mother of recipient Benjamin, “Ben loves his car and has so much freedom and mobility from it. It has really changed his life and ours in incredible ways.”
If you know of any child that could benefit or are interested in being a sponsor, please reach out via email at GoBabyGoRI@gmail.com.