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Sitting in the Driver’s Seat

Students with a skill and time, and a local boy with a need

By Abigail Thorpe

Photo Courtesy of Bonners Ferry High School Robotics Team

It was a grey, cold day as the Bonners Ferry High School Robotics Team gathered at Valley View Elementary School on December 12 to present their project, a motorized outdoor scooter, to a local 6-year-old who waited eagerly. It was a grey, ordinary day, but nothing about this moment was ordinary or grey for kindergartner Weston. The robotics team had been working for months on a project that would give him a freedom he had never known.

Weston was born without the use of his arms or hands, and very limited use of his legs and feet. Unable to stand or walk on his own, he relied on his motorized scooter indoors, but when it came time for recess, he had to be pulled in a wagon around the schoolyard, dependent on the help of someone.

The robotics team had carefully modified and outfitted a donated scooter for his needs, complete with a foot-controlled joystick for him to navigate the scooter. In a way, it was the gift of freedom and movement. Weston could now go wherever he wanted outdoors during recess—of his own volition.

A while back, the team had been approached about building a special system for Weston to eat with. The project was too advanced for them to create, but a fundraiser was held for the system, and later the robotics team was able to watch a video of Weston using the device. It was at that moment that the team glimpsed a picture of what life was like for him and realized that they could help in another way.

Weston’s physical therapist, occupational therapist, a robotics mentor and the principal were trying to figure out how Weston could access the playground, and the principal asked if the robotics team could come up with something for him.

“That’s when they started realizing, ‘Oh, this young guy has a really long way to go, and we need to help him out,” says robotics advisor Mike Tymrak. “It made them realize how blessed they are.”

The team met with Weston’s physical therapist to better understand his needs, and the project took off. It was the perfect timing. With COVID restrictions, the robotics team’s typical season of competitions was on hold. “We talked about it, and they all agreed, let’s do what we can,” says Tymrak. “This gave the kids a different opportunity during this time period.” The demonstration robot the team was working on went on the backburner.

Donor Closet in Spokane donated an all-terrain scooter, and in September the team went to work. Firstly, they needed to get the scooter working. Some troubleshooting and new batteries later, they had it fired up. The most difficult part of the project was finding a way to make the scooter work for Weston, recalls robotics student Alex Stella. “We talked to his physical therapist to see what his range of motion is, and how he likes to control the other scooter and aids that he has. After that meeting we came together, brainstormed, and eventually came up with the design we have now.”

The end design features a child’s seat and a roll bar to help protect Weston. Because he has no need of them, the arm rests have been removed, and the control system was redesigned for Weston to control with his foot. Weston came in so they could figure out how to best position and configure the controls. “The kids who got to see that realized they take everything for granted. He’s never gotten to go out on the school grounds on his own,” says Tymrak.

Because of COVID, the robotics team couldn’t meet with more than 10 people at a time. They split the team into groups, with the build team, programmers and business team coming in at different times, or working from home.

North Idaho Iron Works donated a powder coat for the frame and bumper the team built specially for Weston—a bright, vibrant green, Weston’s favorite color, and a reflection of his own personality.

“This kid is great, he’s very social, he’s got a beautiful personality. He loves to go out with the other kids and play tag and be part of the group, and this will give him the mobility to feel like he’s part of something,” explains Tymrak.

When Weston first took a trial run on the scooter before its completion, he was thrilled. “He was very excited! Within the first 20 seconds he was on it, he wanted to go faster, and as he continued to drive around on it, he didn't want to get out of it,” recalls Stella. “This project really impacted how we view disabilities. What I mean by that is instead of looking at them like something that has no fix to it, I think that we look at them knowing there is a way to solve that problem.”

For Tymrak, this project was an opportunity for the students to work on something bigger than just winning a competition. “Just to see the kids grab a hold of it and go with it is encouraging. I’ve been around high school students for a long time, and the ones who got to see Weston that day, they got a better picture about what the whole thing’s all about,” he explains. “You put a person to your project, and it makes a big difference.”

For Weston, a whole new world has opened, and he’s sitting in the driver’s seat, thanks to a community of people who cared, and a team of students who took the challenge.

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