It didn’t take long for 2-year-old Kyla Hernandez to find her pink, Doc McStuffins-themed car inside Astoria’s Clatsop Service Center Friday. Nor did it take long for Kyla to make a run for the convertible, climb in behind the wheel, buckle her seatbelt and take off, bopping the steering wheel as she zoomed across the room, shouting and smiling with excitement.
Kyla’s part of a new effort, called Go Baby Go, that puts children with developmental disabilities in the driver’s seat of small electric cars, a proven method to build both their motor and social skills.
She and five other kids received free ride-on cars Friday, after they were assembled and modified to be hand-accelerated by a volunteer corps that included family, friends, high school and college students and educators.
Riley Ricks, a student at Astoria High School, adopted Go Baby Go as his senior project.
Cynthia Barlow, an early childhood specialist with the Northwest Regional Education Service District in Astoria, secured a grant from the Wheel to Walk Foundation in Portland that bought four of the cars. Norm Stutznegger, owner of Pacific Coast Medical Supply, paid for three others.
Closing the gap
“The mission of our lab is to give children with disabilities the opportunities to be troublemakers like their peers,” said Sam Logan, an associate professor at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. He traveled Friday to Astoria, hoping to create another community hub for Go Baby Go.
Logan started at Oregon State last fall. With him came Go Baby Go, an effort started by University of Delaware professor Cole Galloway. Logan headed the program in Delaware before moving to Oregon.
He first pointed out the obvious disparity in physical and social mobility between babies and toddlers with disabilities and their peers. A powered wheelchair for such young children, he added, can cost $30,000 and is often not available until the children are 3 years old at the earliest.
Logan said there are 55 sites across Oregon now where volunteers have been trained to assemble and modify the small electric cars, which cost about $200 each. They have been outfitted for children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other cognitive disorders. He estimates 3,000 kids across Oregon could be helped by such cars. His office’s goal is to make sure all their families know the program is available.
Getting ready for school
Barlow, who learned about Go Baby Go at a conference, said she quickly saw the program’s potential as a low-cost option to help children with disabilities close the mobility gap.
“I looked at my caseload, and looked at which kids weren’t ambulating,” Barlow said of how she selected the six kids getting cars. Some have Down syndrome, she said, while some have other cognitive deficiencies.
Kristin Norris said her son, Daniel, who received a Spider-Man-themed Dodge Viper look-alike Friday, has hydrocephalus, which involves a buildup of fluid in the cavities of the brain.
“He just turned 4 — but he’s more like a 10-month-old baby,” Norris said.
“They told me he’d do nothing and that he would be a vegetable,” said Norris, adding she learned from doctors of Daniel’s ailment several months into her pregnancy and was urged to get an abortion.
But her son has proven doctors wrong all his life, she said. Norris hopes the car will help Daniel keep up with his older brother, 8, and sister, 6, and integrate quicker in his first year of preschool.
Kyla, who had been trained on the cars beforehand, took to driving immediately. Some kids cried in the driver’s seat, put on performance in front of the crowd of adults gathered for the occasion. Some, like Daniel, fell asleep.
Logan said it can take a week or more for kids to get used to the cars, but the effect is marked. Kids using the cars show faster increases in mobility and social ease, he said, plus the cool factor of the cars helps the kids integrate easier with more mobile peers.
Stutznegger said the service district helped his daughter with a sensory processing disorder, and he felt a need to pay them back. Stutznegger paid for three of the ride-on cars and is funding a few more.
More businesses and individuals are showing interest in funding the cars, Barlow said, and the district hopes to keep several on hand for kids looking to grow their confidence behind the wheel.