When a tractor-trailer pulled into a New Britain, Connecticut, warehouse recently with 318 battery-powered, ride-on toy cars, professors Michele Dischino and James DeLaura looked as delighted as children on Christmas morning.
Dischino and DeLaura said they were already thinking about the disabled youngsters across Connecticut who will get the gift of mobility through the donated toys.
“Research is showing that mobility means more than just physical growth. It’s important to growing emotionally and socially,” said Dischino, who teaches technology and engineering education at Central Connecticut State University.
Through CCSU’s GoBabyGo program, Dischino and DeLauro have assembled a team of CCSU students who convert oversized ride-on toy cars into tools that help disabled toddlers get around. The modified cars are given to families that can’t afford the powered wheelchairs that cost thousands of dollars.
“We got one to a little boy of 4. Before this, all he could do is ‘Army crawl’ to get around,” said DeLauro. “His mother said this was the first time he had smiled — she was crying; the grandmother was crying; their guests were crying. Now we supply Kleenex.”
Dischino heard of GoBabyGo, a nonprofit initiative at the University of Delaware, from a TV news show five years ago. She talked with DeLauro, chairman of technology and engineering education at CCSU, and they pioneered a branch of the operation in Connecticut.
They formed CCSU’s Central CARES, an organization of students and faculty who mix technology education and philanthropy. They do the work of re-engineering powered ride-on cars individually for youngsters ages 1-1/2 to 5 with mobility impairments.
Typically, Central CARES works with high school or middle school students in the child’s community, teaching them what’s needed to adapt the mini-quads or mini-F150 pickup trucks.
In New Britain, that has meant an opportunity for high school students to work alongside the Central CARES mentors in designing and building several cars.
“It’s an incredible collaboration. This is hands-on, and our students are involved in every part of the engineering design process,” Superintendent Nancy Sarra said.
Central CARES has also worked with high schools in Darien, Windsor, Plainville and elsewhere. CCSU senior Connor Spencer said part of the reward is teaching high school students how to understand engineering and technology, and part is seeing toddlers ultimately get to move around independently.
Virtually none of the toddlers can operate foot pedals, so the power control has to be moved to the steering wheel. Many of the youngsters with cerebral palsy or other conditions lean heavily to one side, so the sitting area has to be rebuilt with support walls or other adaptations.
Over the past four years, CCSU’s team has modified 138 such vehicles.
Dischino and DeLaura took their students to Fisher Price’s headquarters near Buffalo, N.Y., to talk with the company about how they adapt the ride-on cars that it produces. Fisher Price was so impressed that it donated 318 and sent a truck to deliver them.
For Dischino, that was nearly perfect — but CCSU had no space to store a tractor-trailer load of shopping cart-sized toys. Mayor Erin Stewart put out a Facebook request for storage, and Peter Niro Jr. stepped forward with room at One Hartford Square.
Sarra, Stewart, Dischino, DeLaura and CCSU President Zulma Toro all thanked Niro as a forklift driver shuttled load after load of donated cars into the warehouse.