DENHAM SPRINGS -- Sitting behind the steering wheel of a hot red Mercedes Benz, 4-year-old Holland Alford was itching to hit the road.
And thanks to a team of graduate students from the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, Alford and other children with motor impairments will now be able to explore the environment around them.
Occupational therapy students from LSU spent last Friday afternoon at Launch Therapy Center in Denham Springs, where they rewired battery-powered cars as part of the “Geaux Baby Geaux” program, the local chapter of a nationwide initiative that adapts toy cars for young children with mobility challenges.
The “Go Baby Go!” program started under Dr. Cole Galloway at the University of Delaware in 2012. The national, community-based research, design and outreach program provides modified ride-on cars to young children who experience limited mobility, according to its website.
Chantelle Varnado, executive director of Launch Therapy Center, a non-profit organization that provides services to children with special needs, said the project enables special needs children “to be more like their typical peers, as well as have greater access to their environment.”
“The kids that would use this type of car can’t run with their friends or get to different places because they’re not ambulatory,” she said. “This allows them to get around and explore their environment.”
Kerrie Ramsdell, Assistant Professor of Clinical Occupational Therapy at the LSU Health Sciences Center who came with her students to Launch, was part of the team that introduced the program in Louisiana.
In an article published by the LSU Health Sciences Center announcing the “Geaux Baby Geaux” project, Ramsdell called mobility “a basic human right” that contributes to the “social, cognitive, and communication development of children.”
“Children who have limited mobility are at increased risk for more delays in these three areas,” Ramsdell said in the article. “By offering power mobility, we have the ability to aid the overall development of children with motor impairments.”
Last Friday, Ramsdell and seven students took out their screwdrivers, drills, handsaws and other tools as they worked to adapt six toy cars for six children at Launch Therapy Center.
Under Ramsdell, the second-year graduate students made specific modifications to the vehicles to meet the particular need of each child. The starters on the cars were placed on the steering wheels — in the shape of a giant red button — to replace the necessity of foot pedals, and students also added seat belts, upright backrests, bumpers and other safety features to the cars.
The students wrapped up work by adding stickers to three of the cars to resemble Lightning McQueen from Disney’s animated film “Cars,” while two others resembled the film “Frozen.”
Alford was the only who had already purchased her own vehicle — a flashy convertible with big headlights, a shining chrome-like bumper and the iconic Mercedes Benz emblem under the hood and in the center of the rims.
“She really wanted it,” her mother, Amber Alford, joked.
Funds for the “Geaux Baby Geaux” project came after Launch Therapy Center won a social media contest sponsored by Carnahan Andrews CPA last December. For winning the fan vote, Launch Therapy Center received a $1,250 donation, while the other three local non-profits took home $250 apiece.
Varnado credited occupational therapist Megan Bernard, who’s been with Launch since June, for coming up with the idea to adapt toy cars for the children. Though there are obvious inclusionary benefits for the children who normally can’t explore their surroundings with their peers, Bernard said there are developmental benefits, as well.
“Mobility is how kids learn and how they engage in their environment,” Bernard said, “so this gives them that ability they wouldn’t normally have.”
The “Geaux Baby Geaux” project isn’t the only good news to recently come out of Launch Therapy Center.
In January, the non-profit organization partnered with the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation to construct a sensory garden at its Hatchell Lane location.
A sensory garden is a self-contained multi-level garden area that allows visitors to explore a wide variety of sensory experiences. They are designed to provide opportunities to stimulate the senses in ways that users may not usually encounter, and it is especially effective for people with sensory processing issues.
“There are children with sensory deficits that may include texture aversions,” Varnado said. “A consistency like pudding and ground meat is different than lettuce, so [a sensory garden] will help them use senses other than taste to prepare them to eat healthy food.
“We’re trying to expose them to as many things as possible to desensitize them, so you have to start early and let them get dirty to help them get used to it.”
Tanja Foil, the Foundation’s Initiatives Coordinator, presented a $10,000 donation to Varnado and her staff to get the project started. Varnado said her goal is to have the garden complete by June.
In other news, Launch Therapy Center is revving up for its “Reaching for the Stars” gala at Forrest Grove Plantation in Denham Springs on Thursday, June 6. The annual fundraiser features music, silent and live auctions, and food from several local restaurants.
Tickets for the gala are $75 each, with proceeds going toward Launch’s mission of “supporting children with disabilities and their families by providing scholarships for therapy services, other services that are not covered by insurance and Medicaid, and the purchasing of therapeutic equipment.” Since opening in August 2015, Launch has served more than 950 children and their families, according to its website.
Last year’s gala raised more than $60,000 for Launch, Varnado said.
To purchase tickets or become a sponsor for the gala, contact Varnado by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact Launch Therapy Center by calling (225) 380-1894 or by visiting its website, www.launchpeds.com.