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LASA high school students help kids with disabilities drive toy cars

Nicole Villalpando
Henry Ferry, 4, sneaks up on Alyssa Eckerman, 18, center, and McKenna Everett, 18. The two seniors gave three children who have disabilities modified battery-operated cars. The cars were made during a class called the Wicked Problem Project at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy High School. [ANA RAMIREZ/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Henry Ferry, 4, rides around the gym at Liberal Arts and Science Academy and LBJ Early College High School in a red motorized miniature Jeep. A big smile spreads across his face as he pushes down on the pedal with his leg and tries his hand at steering.

Behind the scenes, his dad, Steve Ferry, is controlling the car with a remote control just to be sure.

Before Henry stepped into the vehicle, he used a small walker to make his way to the car.

Henry is one of three kids who received motorized miniature cars that have been adapted for them in May as part of Project Zoom Zoom, a program created by recent LASA high school graduates Alyssa Eckerman, 18, and McKenna Everett, 18.

Eckerman and Everett had to learn about each kid and what abilities and differences they had. Each car needed different adaptations.

The families also got to pick the car that best fit their child's personality from a list of cars.

Henry's red Jeep lookalike has extra padding around the seat to protect him and keep him upright.

A white Bentley allowed that driver to start and stop the car by her head making contact with a button on the back of the seat.

A red BMW lookalike can operate with a pedal, but it offers more head support than a typical car would have.

All three vehicles can be controlled through a remote control by a parent or caregiver, too.

For Henry, who has CHARGE syndrome, which affects his vision, hearing, heart, breathing and balance, the car was "something we believed would not be possible for him," mom Liz Ferry says.

"With kids that have so many complex disabilities, everything is slowed down, everything has to be adapted."

"Here he is. He can do something fast. That has to be huge," she says. "He is having a typical experience."

She has not yet gone over to Everett and Eckerman to thank them. "I know I will cry," she says.

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Project Zoom Zoom came out of LASA's Wicked Problem Project elective, which allows students to identify a difficult problem in their community and create change. The elective started three years ago and came out of the chemistry class, which often offered kids a class period every other week to work on a project of their own.

Project Zoom Zoom has had its ups and its downs and has grown since initially proposed, says Wicked Problem Project teacher Helen Wilson. "I'm so proud. They've helped these kids have more mobility," she says.

This project has also helped Eckerman and Everett "grow up to be adults," she says.

When they first got into the class last fall, they weren't sure what they wanted to do.

Eckerman wanted to continue some of the work she had done through the robotics club at LASA bringing robotics to kids at local elementary schools. "I enjoyed helping kids and making a difference," Eckerman says.

Everett wasn't part of robotics, but she saw the class as an opportunity to work on an independent project and do community service.

They both are interested in engineering.

Wilson sent them to visit Carl Seagren, who teaches a ninth-grade class called SciTech, to get ideas about what they could do that would mix engineering and community service.

He had been to a conference where the founder of Go Baby Go, Cole Galloway, had talked about his community program to give kids with mobility differences adaptive ride-on cars.

"We thought it was the coolest thing," Eckerman says.

Eckerman and Everett began researching Go Baby Go and reached out to Galloway, who is a professor at the University of Delaware and who offered advice about how to start their own Go Baby Go chapter in Austin, which they now call Project Zoom Zoom.

They estimate that they put in about 500 hours on Project Zoom Zoom. Three cars were given in late May, but a car was tested last fall to make sure the project was viable.

"It's been a lot, but it's been so worth it," Eckerman says.

"It's been really great to see how all the hard work has paid off," Everett says.

One of the biggest lessons they learned through this project was how to talk to adults. "A lot of adults don't take high schoolers seriously," Everett says. "It's getting people to listen to you and reply."

Everett and Eckerman had to write a final paper about their project and reflect on their experience. The engineering was the easy part. The challenge was communicating with adults and navigating roadblocks that came up.

In order to do this project, they reached out to friends and family, the LASA robotics Facebook group and later the school newsletter to get funding for the cars and the adaptations. They even started a GoFundMe site.

They were hoping to find funding through local businesses and grants, but again they stumbled into the problem of being high schoolers. They did get a $250 grant from St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church's Knights of Columbus chapter.

They raised $1,300 total.

Another big thing they learned was that they needed to narrow down the cars available. The first test a family picked was about $300. For the next three, Everett and Eckerman created a menu of cars that were about $150 each and let the families pick. That keeps the cost of the cars including modifications to about $200 each.

They also had to figure out the process of finding families who would want the cars, which proved to be more difficult than they thought.

They reached out to an Austin school district speech-language pathologist, Melissa Mathews, who then connected them with Nicole Robinson, who works with children with vision differences at Texas Health and Human Services. She helped connect them to children and their families.

The other thing they learned was about refining the process itself. This year one of the cars will need additional modifications to make it work for that child. They realized they didn't ask the right questions and assumed that the child could use a straight-back seat, but she actually needed a reclining seat. They'll recommend the next group of Project Zoom Zoom leaders do more meeting with the families in person.

About 25 kids took the Wicked Problem Project class last year. "We've seen these young kids grow through the project," Wilson says. "This is why we teach."

It's not about giving them answers. "It's asking questions for them to think about that they hadn't thought through," Seagren says. "They have to find the best answer for them."

Every year, some projects succeed beyond what teachers or students imagined and some don't come to be. That's OK because it's about the process, Wilson says. "What did you learn? What could you have done differently? What are you going to take to college?"

Eckerman and Everett will both be going to the University of Texas in the fall: Eckerman to study architecture and architectural engineering and Everett to study mechanical engineering. They won the science department's highest award for the project.

Project Zoom Zoom will continue now that Everett and Eckerman have graduated. Two students who will be juniors will take over the project.

Eckerman and Everett will advise them. They continue to hope that businesses will step forward to give them grants of $1,000 or $2,000 so they can give more kids cars.

"Seeing Henry drive and get so excited about driving just made it all worth it," Eckerman says.

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To find out more, or if you know a kid who would like a modified vehicle, email

Most of the cars are designed for 1- to 5-year-olds, but there are some that are designed for bigger kids with a higher weight limit.