Robotics students at Wetumpka High School are putting their skills to good use by helping a family in their community.
For the past few weeks, five students have been busy modifying a motorized toy car to fit the needs of 2-year-old Stella Kirkpatrick who has limited mobility.
Stella's mother, Sarah Kirkpatrick, said it’s amazing whenever she can get access to toys that are adapted for Stella.
“Sometimes we can feel very isolated because things in this world aren’t made for her,” Kirkpatrick said.
Stella was born four weeks early due to a placental abruption. This occurs when the placenta detaches from the inner wall of the womb before delivery, depriving the baby of oxygen and nutrients.
Stella was without oxygen and a heartbeat for about 17 minutes and suffered a brain injury known as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).
“The doctors were pretty sure she wouldn’t make it,” Kirkpatrick said. “The fact that she’s here is a miracle.”
She was later diagnosed with Spastic Quadriplegia Cerebral Palsy, which Kirkpatrick said was caused by her brain injury. Stella is also epileptic.
Her diagnosis means her mobility is limited because of difficultly controlling her arms and legs, and the core of her body is unable to perform its typical function. Kirkpatrick said it is difficult to find toys that suit her daughter.
Having a car modified to Stella’s abilities will not only be fun for the toddler, but it will be therapeutic by helping to improve her fine motor skills and furthering her understanding of cause and effect, Kirkpatrick said. For example, pushing the car’s acceleration button will cause the car to move forward.
“It will also be a good first step toward her learning how to operate a motorized wheelchair,” Kirkpatrick said.
To make sure the car works well for Stella, the students have been consulting with Go Baby Go, a nonprofit organization that modifies toy cars for children with mobility disabilities so they can have a chance to play and socialize with their peers more easily.
Kirkpatrick and Stella met with the robotics students and their teacher Dr. Virginia Vilardi on Thursday to get measurements of Stella in her car. The data will be used to make modifications to seat, which will need more stabilization.
Twelfth-grader Avery Pyles, head of engineering for the robotics team, said Stella’s car will be equipped with buttons that control acceleration and various modes on the car.
Pyles said the car came equipped with a rocking feature and Bluetooth capabilities that could be used to help soothe Stella. For added safety, Kirkpatrick will also have an override remote control.
“Most people see STEM careers as a way to make a lot of money, but it can also be used to help improve the lives of other people,” Pyles said. “You can really just see they joy in Stella and her mother’s face.”
Wetumpka principal Dr. Robbie Slater said when he found out about the opportunity to help the Kirkpatricks, he thought it would be a great opportunity for the students to apply the hands-on skills they’ve learned in the classroom to a real-life situation to help a child.
“This is one of the best life experiences they could ever have,” he said. “When this is done, it could open the door to helping more people in the community.”
Vilardi said what touches her the most is seeing her students making a difference in someone’s life.
“The goal is to help them grow into adults who will make a difference in the future, but they’re bringing the future to the present,” Vilardi said. “If you teach community service to them while they’re young, it just becomes a part of who they are.”
Vilardi said the goal is to have to car completed within a month.
“What’s also great about this is that the students aren’t doing it because it was assigned to them,” Vilardi said. “We have 67 students on the robotics team and these kids stepped forward and said they wanted to help.”
The students working on the project are: Pyles, Michael Fulmer, Alan Estrada, Serena Ward and Bailey Worrell.
To follow along with Stella’s journey, like her Stella’s Steps Facebook page.