By Tim Linn, Public Relations Specialist, Rockhurst University
In January 2015, faculty from Rockhurst University’s physical therapy department invited students to a meeting to discuss a new volunteer project. Kendra Gagnon, Ph.D., PT, associate professor of physical therapy, wanted to launch a University-based chapter of an organization called GoBabyGo!
About six months prior to that meeting, Gagnon attended a presentation and workshop by the organization’s founder, Cole Galloway, Ph.D., PT, an associate professor and chair of the department of physical therapy at the University of Delaware. She came away with plenty of ideas and infused with energy.
GoBabyGo! chapters have sprung up across the globe based on an idea that came to Galloway on a trip to the toy store: to turn readily available motorized toy cars into mobility vehicles designed to fit a child’s individual needs, whether that’s a visual impairment, cognitive disabilities, or a condition, like spina bifida, that would limit a child’s mobility.
“I come from a pediatric physical therapy background, where mobility aides are often big and more often expensive,” Gagnon said. “GoBabyGo! cars help kids explore the world, and they do it in cars with cartoon or superhero characters on them, so there’s not the same stigma that some traditional mobility aides have.”
Gagnon said existing research suggests a link between physical mobility and cognitive development — that children who are able get around on their own can explore new things, make decisions, and sometimes get in a little trouble, all of which is good for growing independence.
It’s also much cheaper — modifying a toy car can cost around $200, compared to thousands of dollars for some more traditional mobility aides. That’s by design — after developing the initial plans for the GoBabyGo! cars, Galloway said he immediately made the documents available for free online, to inspire grassroots, volunteer-based groups like the one at Rockhurst to get started and spread the technology in their communities.
“Typically, the universities do the research, hand it over to companies who take years to develop it and we go back into our caves and start over,” Galloway said. “I didn’t want to go back in the cave — I wanted to get this to the people who are going to use it faster, and let people improve it.”
The first meeting of Rockhurst’s GoBabyGo! group, in one of the University’s physical therapy labs, attracted close to 100 students from the PT and engineering programs at Rockhurst. Things started happening pretty quickly after that. In March 2015, the volunteers delivered the first vehicles to students at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired. The resulting media coverage led to a partnership with the Variety Club of Kansas City, allowing the group to host workshops for hundreds of community volunteers, help kickstart other chapters in the region, and build and distribute more than 60 vehicles of their own. Of note, families have come to Kansas City from as far as Texas to get a vehicle for their child.
More recently, the group served as one of a small number of pilot sites for a new innovation — a harness system specially made from the frame of an outdoor tent that allows those with mobility challenges to move in a given area in any direction under their own power, assisted by a harness.
“Harness systems have been a part of physical therapy for years, but they’re typically suspended over a treadmill,” Gagnon said. “What really makes the difference is what’s underneath the harness. This opens the door to a lot of applications — you could integrate a harness system into a home or a workplace to make this whole environment that a person can move around in.”
A harness system that Variety KC purchased for the Rockhurst University GoBabyGo! program is now the subject of a study by students and faculty, who are looking at the benefits of the new technology. One of the students who coordinated that study was Brennan Lashbrook, who said the study and the harness are both very much in keeping with the spirit of the program.
“The objective is that other kids can play with [a disabled child], so that’s the whole thing — we want all of the kids to be able to socialize together,” he said.
Gagnon said the partnership cemented early on with Variety KC, which has served as a sort of catalyst for growth in the program. “It’s been unbelievable how quickly people learned about it and contacted us,” she said. “And Variety Club KC made it possible for us to make sure that the people who needed a car could get one.”
Even Galloway said among the many chapters of GoBabyGo!, he considers Rockhurst’s among the very best. “Rockhurst is relatively small, university-wise, but in the GoBabyGo! world, they rock,” he said.
Galloway got to see the group in action during a visit in Fall 2016, when he was the guest of the College of Health and Human Services Speaker Series. Despite what its size might suggest, Galloway said Rockhurst is in some crucial ways perfectly positioned to succeed in a project like GoBabyGo!, given its Jesuit values and mission.
“When you unpack this project, you see both sides — the science and the social justice,” he said. “They go hand-in-hand. I think social justice is about listening to communities and getting behind them and fighting with them.”
It’s also been great for learning: Gagnon said that physical therapists need to be able to communicate with specialists from other disciplines, and working together with an engineer provides some great opportunities for both sides to practice those skills of translation.
Brian Olmstead, a physical therapy student who has helped the group since their first meeting, said that that sense of collaboration is what makes the partnership work and makes it exciting. He said, “When you get people who are movement scientists with people who know the tools, the science and the technology, you get GoBabyGo!.”