Toy cars specially engineered by crack University of Akron teams and their mentors.
Children with unique mobility challenges and a need for speed.
Put them together and you get Friday’s Adapt-A-Car event at Akron Children’s Museum in downtown Akron, attended by about 150 children, family members and volunteers.
Mike Firtha, president of the Inclusioneers, said the gathering was conceived as a kind of celebration for the recipients to get together and enjoy their new vehicles with family and friends and the volunteers who brought the cars to reality. His organization is all volunteer — from the board of directors to the students who reconfigure the cars and the volunteers from Archbishop Hoban and North Canton Hoover high schools. All of the cars, equipment and labor are donated. Each child for whom a modified car is requested takes it home to keep.
“This is our Super Bowl,” Firtha said. “How can you not love this?”
The children did, although Evelyn Horsfall, 2, daughter of Nate and Leslie Horsfall of Northfield, wasn’t quite ready to use her seat belt. Evelyn declined to comment, but enthusiastically nodded that she liked her pink car and was ready to put it to use.
Evelyn uses a walker to get around, but her cerebral palsy sometimes saps her energy, Nate Horsfall said. He said his daughter will use the car for motoring in the backyard and walks around the neighborhood and the occasional trip to the Akron Zoo.
“Evelyn loves it. She’s super excited,” he said.
In her first chance behind the wheel, Evelyn balked at strapping in as her mom encouraged her and Inclusioneer volunteers checked the lights on the "paw patrol."
Paisley Benner, 3, of Akron, didn’t mind using her seat belt, but wasn’t in a rush to drive.
Her father, Craig Benner, said Paisley has osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic bone disorder characterized by fragile bones that break easily. Her car will give her greater mobility while protecting her from the spills and falls that could cause a break, he said.
“It will allow her to go where she wants to go and do what she wants to do,” he said.
Firtha said he started Inclusioneers after his daughter, Haylee DeSonne, a Summit DD inclusion specialist, approached him about modifying a bike handle for a 3-year-old girl so she could ride with her siblings.
After that project was completed in 2016, more requests were made for mobility-enhancing projects and 30 University of Akron biomedical engineering students — an entire class, Firtha said — volunteered to help with them.
Now, Inclusioneers has seven mentors and teams of biomedical engineering students working on an expanding list of projects that culminated in this year’s event. A host of sponsors, including Firtha's day-job employer Air Enterprises donating space to work on projects, helped fuel the success of Friday's Adapt-A-Car event.
UA’s NASA robotics team even became involved on one especially difficult project dubbed “The Wild Thing,” which was adapted at the request of Boy Scouts who knew a member who would be helped.
“They gutted the controls,” Firtha said, and used a 3D program to design a seat for the vehicle, which needed to be more robust than the average power wheel. Fisher-Price produced the seat, which would have cost $3,000, for free.
Firtha said he was confident that the children would appreciate the vehicles developed to help with their mobility, but was a bit surprised by the prolonged enthusiasm of the children’s families, who say the vehicles help with their child’s social development.
Firtha said the Inclusioneers base their confidence in the value of their modified devices on the work of University of Delaware professor Cole Galloway. His research indicates that the cars help with mental, social and emotional development.
Galloway was scheduled to attend the event Friday after a flight from Dubai.
DeSonne, who helped organize the Adapt-A-Car event, said children and their families love the adapted vehicles because it helps in all aspects of their lives.
“It’s a sense of belonging,” she said. “Everybody gets to participate. It’s empowering.”
DeSonne said the Inclusioneers will have another event in 2020.
"I don't think we can stop," she said.
Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or firstname.lastname@example.org.