JACKSON TWP. — They've made birdhouses and built cornhole boards.
But members of the Jackson Middle School MILO club aimed higher this year, all the way to the top of the hill at the Soap Box Derby in Akron.
MILO — My Impact Lifts Others — is an after-school program that brings together traditional and autistic students.
The group was created about five years ago, said Lindsey Fentner, a school intervention specialist who runs the program with Katie Raddish.
"We wanted to provide better opportunities for them to interact with more of their peers and students with other disabilities as well," Fentner said. "We wanted to provide a safe and comfortable spot with very typical kids."
The club, she said, is divided equally between children with autism and typical students recommended by their teachers at the start of the school year.
"We choose students that their teachers said exemplified being kind, hopeful and trustworthy leaders in the class," Fentner said.
Fentner said MILO exposes each group to peers they may not ordinarily see during a school day.
"Some with autism are in a separate class," she said. "The MILO program gives them a chance to interact with their peers. "
The students meet once a month for activities such as holiday parties and to work on one large annual project. Fentner said they sometimes get help with building projects from her neighbors.
"We've made birdhouses and cornhole boards, but this year is really the biggest thing we've done," she said. "We've built a Soap Box Derby car from a kit we purchased. Over the past four or five meetings, we built the car together."
This weekend, MILO participants will head to Derby Downs in Akron, where they will race the car they built.
Last week they traveled to Akron for a "Team Day" to weigh their car and driver, and take it on a practice run. Each child also got to drive a car on the track, Fentner said.
Their car will compete in the Gravity Racing Challenge STEM category for grades five to eight.
"I think a lot of them didn't know what the Soap Box Derby was," she said. "We showed them a video of a race. Everything just clicked last Thursday. It was very exciting for them."
Fentner said the project has been a success.
"Things went well," she said. "There were times when putting it together was difficult because of the instructions. For some, they were using tools they'd never used before, which was good exposure. Some kids had never used a hammer or a drill. It was a good obstacle, giving them life skills they haven't practiced."
The University of Akron College of Engineering is a partner in the Gravity Racing Challenge, which will host more than 130 school teams from grades 3-12 Thursday and Saturday at Derby Downs.
To learn more about the race, visit: https://www.soapboxderby.org/education-program/grc-stem-team-competition-races.aspx