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For Forsyth Central students, playing with Power Wheels benefits young kids with special needs
Jamie Otwell, 3, and his mom, Elizabeth Otwell, check out a Power Wheels car modified by engineering students at Forsyth Central High School. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

The commons of Forsyth Central High School resembled a mix between a toy store and an auto shop, as engineering students modified a popular toy into one-of-kind rides.

On Saturday, students in the school’s engineering program worked to modify Power Wheels vehicles for six young patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

“We’ve modified these basic cars to make it simpler for the kids,” said teacher Dusty Skorich. “We’ve changed it from a pedal system to a button that can be placed. One student is going to have it behind his head so he can move his head back and hit it. Some are on the steering wheel. Some are on the armrests.”

Elizabeth Otwell, whose son Jamie, 3, was among those chosen, said she had never heard of the program but found out about it through his physical therapist at CHOA.  

“It’s fun to see what all they can do to modify the cars and make the kids more comfortable and to allow him to drive,” Otwell said. “He has a hard time with his legs, so pushing down the pedal down with his legs would be difficult.”

Judy Thames, who came with her grandson, Noah Fansler, 5, said she and her family were also unaware of the program but she was impressed with what she saw.

 “They told him about a month ago or six weeks ago that he had been chosen as one of the recipients of a car. [His mom] couldn’t tell me anything. She had no concept of what it was,” Thames said.

Of the six cars, four were modeled after Lightning McQueen from the Cars movie series, while the other two were a smaller model of a Maserati and a sleigh with characters from Disney’s Frozen.

When asked how long he and other students had been working on the cars, senior Eric Gangwish said Skorich walked them through the basics that morning and Saturday was “the day” to do all the work.

“It’s been interesting. We didn’t know a whole lot of what we were exactly going to be doing coming into this,” he said. “We knew the purpose of this project and we were going to be putting different ways for them to control this on here, but we weren’t quite sure how we were going to do it.”

The cars will formally be given to the recipients on Wednesday, when they will lead a parade at the Cumming Country Fair & Festival’s CHOA night.

Go Baby Go is a national program that started at the University of Delaware and has since expanded across the country to adapt the battery-powered cars to help children with disabilities and other challenges move around.

Zach Brumbalow, son of Cumming Mayor Troy Brumbalow and a Central alum, brought the idea back to the high school after he took part in a similar build at Mercer University this spring. He said Mercer students are planning another later in the month.

“We live somewhere that is way too blessed to not do anything, so to see such a large group of kids that are really ready to go all in on that is something that is really special to see,” Brumbalow said.

Troy Brumbalow also got involved in the project by helping find donors of several of the cars after the Brumbalows delivered one in August.

Skorich said working on the cars was a good hands-on experience for the students that can’t be replicated in a textbook or test.

“Part of being an engineer is using your ingenuity to fix problems on the fly, not remember stuff out of a textbook or anything like that,” he said. “So, there have been several problems today where the kids were like, ‘Well, how am I going to do this, and I look at them like, ‘Well, that’s kind of why you’re here, to figure that out. Not just for me to tell you what to do.’”

The other benefit, Skorich said, was getting the students involved in the community, which he said can be an issue sometimes for youth.

“They spend so much time in the building that they really don’t realize that… when you get out of high school and when you get out of college, you become part of the community and it’s up to you to determine whether that community is a good community or a bad community,” Skorich said.

Gangwish appeared to have learned something from both of those lessons. He said he enjoyed working with the parents and kids and called the hands-on work “a lot of really fast problem-solving.”

“The kids are really sweet,” Gangwish said. “They’re really nice kids. They’re all really happy to be here. I think they’re going to be really excited about getting their car. And the parents are super helpful because we don’t knowthe full extent of how well they function in these kinds of cars, so they’ve been helping us out a lot, making sure that everything is the right fit for these kids.”