HARRISON, Ohio – Erin Pope's tiny clients had a problem.
Toddlers with cerebral palsy and other physical disabilities undergo physical therapy with Pope to move and learn as much as they can at The Perlman Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
But some of those young children with a hunger to learn were going months without a key learning tool – motorized wheelchairs to explore and experiment in the world around them, like kids who crawl and walk.
"Power wheelchairs run as expensive as cars," Pope said. "We lose a lot of therapy time because there is a huge gap between us recommending they get a wheelchair and insurance actually approving it."
Private insurance typically takes two to three months, she said, and Medicaid takes even longer.
That time without a wheelchair means a critical opportunity is lost for physical and mental development when children's bodies and minds are developing rapidly, frustrating children and all the people working hard to help them reach their potential.
But Pope has employed a secret weapon to solve the problem: her husband, Tom Pope, and a group of dedicated Harrison High School engineering and robotics students he teaches.
Pope's after-school robotics club put in long hours to design and create a motorized wheelchair that cost less than $200 to build. It's decked out with a professionally drawn sketch of Superman, a big red cape and a host of other superheroes depicted in a collage.
Cheap, Durable and Fun
The wheelchair was built on a PVC pipe chassis and outfitted with other durable but inexpensive parts, like a motorcycle battery, leftover fabric and a plastic storage bin to hold the motor. The battery takes a couple of hours to charge and lasts all day.
"We spend a lot of hours here," said Katie Bernhardt, a junior who showed off the nearly finished product in the engineering lab, which was bustling with students. She is one of six students who Pope said were the core of the wheelchair-building team.
Bernhardt said the team made sure the wheelchair would look good to a young child while being functional.
That's why Bernhardt found a Superman pillowcase from a fabric store to cover the seat cushion that clashed with other fabric colors on the chair.
"We have four girls on the team, and we said we just cannot take this clash. We spent too much time on it for it not to look good," she said.
Tom Pope and the team are putting the finishing touches on the wheelchair and plan to deliver it to the Perlman Center for some on-the-job testing in the coming weeks. Once flu season is over, the high school students will head to the center to see the product in action.
"The goal is to get that one in their hands, find out where we went right and where we went wrong," he said. "We're hoping they use it and abuse it so that the next time we make one, we know where we need to beef it up or trim it down a little."
Tom Pope said additional wheelchairs should only take two weeks to build after the design is finalized. He plans to make about three a year for as long as the center needs them.
Erin Pope said Perlman Center will experiment with sending the wheelchairs home with individuals or keeping the wheelchairs at Children's Hospital for use during therapy sessions.
Either way, she sees them as being a major addition to the center's efforts.
"This gives them the opportunity to get a toy on a shelf. There are times we have to re-teach that at 3 or 4. We're teaching them that they have the ability to do a lot for themselves," Pope said
Physical therapy is just one facet of the Perlman Center's holistic model for children with cerebral palsy and other severe physical and, sometimes, mental challenges.
"Children get occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy in a combined environment. We really focus on active and functional participation," Erin Pope said.
Tom Pope and his students decided early on to design the first group of wheelchairs with a superhero theme, so they successfully solicited graphic artists to create sketches to decorate the chairs.
Artist David Michael Beck made the Superman art. John Beatty created a Captain America portrait, and Corben Kern used a pencil to create a detailed sketch of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia from "Star Wars."
"I got involved because it's something near and dear to my wife's heart and, in turn, mine," Tom Pope said. "And my students got behind the idea."
Erin Pope is excited to add the economy wheelchairs to her array of therapies.
"Getting a power wheelchair is a big deal. It's a big life changer, and it's a big expense" she said. "We wanted to see if this would be an alternative for people not ready to take that step. Having some options that are available and affordable are really important."