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Movement is the language children speak fluently before they are able to form words. When a toddler is excited, they run and jump. When they're upset, they kick and roll. Motion is how they communicate and interact with the world around them. So what about children with physical disabilities, who cannot independently run, jump or kick? They spend the most important years of their developmental life silent, passive, relying on others to determine what they want to say; where they want to go.

Students and faculty at Marymount University in Arlington are breaking them out of that passivity, putting them in the driver's seat and sending them out on the open road of play and possibilities with GoBabyGo.

GoBabyGo was developed in 2006 by Cole Galloway, a pediatric researcher at the University of Delaware, along with Sunil Agrawal, a mechanical engineering professor. The idea takes motorized toy cars that can be bought for about $100, rewires them, retrofits them with simple materials like PVC pipe and pool noodles and turns them into modified therapy and mobility devices for children with disabilities.

The result is a fun form of physical therapy that enables the child to move with their own agency while improving their balance and muscle function. The concept is revolutionary in that it acts as a tool for immediate functional assistance, like a wheelchair, while simultaneously working as a rehabilitative practice. The cars are modified to fit each individual child's needs with minor mechanical changes such as tightening the turn radius of the car, and moving the power button to an accessible place. They can be configured to be driven sitting down, standing up or as a motorized walker.

The benefits of GoBabyGo are more than physical. In a TedTalk Galloway gave last year about the program, he explained that in the United States, children with mobility issues have to wait until age 5 to receive a pediatric power chair, leaving them to live through "five years of passive existence." Galloway said this passiveness is detrimental to the development of a child, because it deprives them of the independence to make decisions of when and where to move - an important function that fully mobile individuals may take for granted.

"Active independent mobility changes our view of the world," Galloway said. "We use our bodies to signify our identity in the world every day."

Amy O'Malley, pediatric physical therapist at Good Beginnings in Falls Church, said GoBabyGo bridges an important gap in accessibility through not only getting children moving at an earlier age, but also at a much lower cost. "For less than $500 you can give a kid this car, while an average wheelchair costs between $5,000 and $13,000."

O'Malley said the modified cars also offer a sense of normalcy to children who feel constantly reminded of their disability. "That's the hard part for people with disabilities - everything you have is very special, very medical-looking," she said. "So instead of a special wheelchair, we have a 'Frozen' car with a harness as support. But it looks like a 'Frozen' car - that's what you see first. So if you want to drive it to the park, you'll look like every other kid."

Jason Craig, physical therapy professor at Marymount, said he remembers walking into his colleague's office and seeing the toy car for the first time and thinking, "Really? What are you doing now?" That was two years ago, and since then, he said he has taken every opportunity to promote and highlight the program internally at the university. After seeing the cars, many people have reached out wanting to help with building, including a librarian and a physics professor with a 3-D printer.

Skye Donovan, chairwoman of the physical therapy department, said GoBabyGo "has had a tremendous impact within a small community at the university with elevating our call to service."

The program is a collaborative effort among students, faculty and pediatric physical therapists in the area. Craig said the cars are built in a research-room-turned-"GoBabyGo garage," equipped with peg boards, tools and spare parts.

The university has the man power internally to build as many cars as they have a demand for, but they need outside help with funding. They are holding a community kick-off event called "GoBabyGo Build and Grow" Sept. 17 at Marymount's Ballston campus, which O'Malley said will be a "festival-like event" to spread awareness of the program and widen community support around children who would benefit from the cars. O'Malley said the event will aim to teach people how to build the cars, familiarize physicians with the program so they can refer children in need, and gain the backing of lawmakers, schools and businesses to make the cars more accessible to families.

The event will feature a mass car-build, keynote presentation, parent forum, and food, games and prizes for the entire family.

Craig said corporate investment would make a huge impact on the program's reach. "A small investment from a company - what executives spend on lunch with a client - can change the lives of thousands," he said.

O'Malley hopes this event will lay the infrastructure for GoBabyGo to become a widespread, ongoing community project.

"We want to establish roots, so that every year we grow our population of kids that get cars, we grow the number of people who can make cars, we grow the number of corporations who say this is a really valid opportunity to get involved with their local community," O'Malley said. "So if we start in Northern Virginia, then maybe D.C. can have a hub, and if every little charitable civic group just did one car a year, we'd hopefully get to our eventual goal, which is one car for every kid."

Husar can be reached at mhusar@catholicherald.com

Watch Cole Galloway's TedTalk.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016