Three-year-old Ella Conroy has used a wheelchair since she was 18 months old.
Surgery to remove a tumor on her spinal cord left her unable to use her legs, says Mom, Tara Conroy of Springdale. The paralysis was unavoidable since the tumor was rooted in her spine.
“There wasn’t an option,” Conroy says. “She was debilitating quite fast and was in a lot of pain.”
Ella has been on the road to recovery and is now cancer-free. But her mobility issues keep her from playing with some favorite toys – including a ride-on Hello Kitty car.
Thanks to Go Baby Go – and a group of physical therapy students at Chatham University – Ella is the proud driver of a toy car custom-fit with hand controls.
“It was a tough situation,” Conroy says. “She has a sibling, Ava, who is 4. They are so close in age and did everything together. We had put Ava’s toy cars away because it just didn’t seem fair.”
The gift of making modifications to her Hello Kitty car from the club was a bright spot for her family, she says.
Ella’s sporty modified vehicle enables her to have fun with her sister again, which Conroy says is a blessing for her and her husband, Nate.
The local chapter of Go Baby was founded by Erin Gaffney, a second-year doctor of physical therapy student at Chatham, and some of her classmates. The national initiative was developed by physical therapists at the University of Delaware. The program provides modified ride-on toy cars with hand controls for youngsters who are unable to use their legs to push a gas pedal because of cognitive or physical disabilities.
Gaffney brought the idea of starting the club to Joseph Schreiber, a Chatham professor and physical therapy program director.
“I heard about this organization from my sister who at the time was working on her master’s in speech pathology at Cleveland State,” Gaffney says. “The health science students and faculty there had started to get involved. I immediately wanted to join as well. And since there was not a chapter in Pittsburgh yet, I brought the idea to Dr. Schreiber. He had heard of it already and was also excited to get involved and everything took off from there.”
With the help of Schreiber, the students started working on the project last spring and became a recognized student organization at Chatham in June. The club now includes about 20 members who have modified two cars so far.
Club members, with some help from a few engineering experts, figured out how to rewire the Conroys’ toy car so Ella could operate it with a hand switch.
“When she was able to drive the car by herself for the first time, she seemed so excited,” Gaffney says. “It seemed to give her a sense of confidence that was truly amazing.”
For the club’s second project, they modified a car that one of the students found on Craigslist and located a child with spina bifida who had lost control of her leg muscles.
Schreiber says the benefits of regained mobility for empowering these children are countless.
“There’s a lot of good, scientific evidence about the importance of mobility across the developmental spectrum, including improved social and cognitive development, trial and error, exploratory understanding of how things work, and even give and take of language,” he says. “If you can’t move by yourself, all these things are impaired.”
The opportunity for increasing mobility has a lot of important benefits, he says, but “the best thing about it is, it’s fun. It allows another avenue for age-appropriate play.”
Phyllis Malone, a physical therapist who works with Ella, says being able to drive her car has made the preschooler much more independent. “It’s nice seeing her and her sister having fun together,” she says.
Another member of Chatham’s Go Baby Go club, Lauren Ashenbrener, a second-year doctor of physical therapy student, wanted to get involved because she worked with children with disabilities to improve their mobility through swimming and sports as an undergraduate student in Movement and Sports Sciences at Purdue University.
“It is amazing how modifying something like a motorized ride-on car can make such difference in a child’s life,” Ashenbrener says. “Ella had the biggest smile on her face while driving the car. I’ll always remember her laughing with her sister while cruising past all of us cheering them on.”
The students have done some fundraising and hope to attract donations and sponsors to support their cause and enable them to modify four or five additional cars at an event this spring.
“We would like to start this as the first of an annual event. The more we are able to raise, the better it will be for the longevity of the club,” Gaffney says. “We are so thankful and excited to be a part of this and hope it will be a lasting part of the Chatham community.”