Creative play for special children

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Jazlyn LeClair, her head drooping and body hunched over, was bushed by the end of her play session Saturday at Sonoma State University.

It had been a busy hour, what with all the balls flying around, kids screaming and running and Jazlyn scooting around the courtyard outside the Fieldhouse gym.

For the 16-year-old Rohnert Park girl born with cerebral palsy that curtails her physical control and movement, just sitting upright in her framed supportive harness is taxing, her grandmother said.

But thanks to an SSU program for special-needs kids, Jazlyn has the opportunity to get out and play with other kids, some of them using specialized equipment and all matched one-on-one with student volunteers.

Among that unique gear are electronic and mechanical devices designed by SSU engineering students that allow Jazlyn and other children to throw and kick balls, activities they otherwise could only dream of doing.

Jazlyn's been going to Saturday Sidekicks since she was 5. She's grown up with it as a regular part of her life, like many others who participate.

"It's great, because she interacts with other kids, and she loves it," said Mimi Schott, Jazlyn's grandmother and guardian. "We're here to socialize, to be with the other kids, be active and have fun."

Founded by Elaine McHugh, chairwoman of the university's kinesiology department, the program provides a supportive environment for about three dozen children ages 5 and up who have a variety of disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and others.

But from the shrieking laughter resounding in the gym Saturday, the first day of the spring semester session, it would be impossible to tell the difference from any other group of youngsters at play — except for the inventiveness of some of the equipment they use, including a swinging contraption with a long sweeping path from the gym ceiling that fits two or more kids at a time.

Several college students run through the gym towing squealing playmates on scooters, while a camping tent filled with soft rubber balls and a large cardboard carton labeled "Where the Wild Things Live" provide quieter fun.

Outside, rambunctious kids with bats and balls — some of them siblings of the participants — turn the courtyard into an obstacle course.

It was there Saturday that Jazlyn demonstrated the special kicking device created for her by electrical engineering students two years ago as part of an ongoing effort by professor Farid Farahmand to provide real-life, problem-solving assignments to his students.

"It also gets them to understand social engagement," Farahmand said Saturday. "As engineers, you can actually impact communities."

Jazlyn can't grasp balls or bats, but student teams from one of Farahmand's classes invented five different devices to help her throw or kick, and thus participate in games with others. Two of the contraptions, both equipped with large activation buttons that Jazlyn is able to push, have a throwing device that uses a motorized scooter wheel to launch a ball into the air.

The kicking machine is a simple design constructed largely from PVC tubing with a large swinging mallet which, when released, boots a kickball into the air.

It's a joyous moment for Jazlyn when she releases the ball into the arms of her cousin, Nathan Berntsen, 8, who enjoys attending Saturday Sidekicks with his 3-year-old brother, Joey, their grandma and their teenage cousin.

Jazlyn enjoys all the cheering, too.

Electrical engineering student Scott Parmley, 23, whose team created the ball thrower, said he loved designing something with such clear purpose — and that made Jazlyn smile so much — reinforcing his desire to eventually use his education to help others.

Farahmand said the cross-pollination that occurs when his students get to know some of those in the Saturday Sidekicks program also breaks down barriers.

"The whole dynamic of these relationships changes," he said.

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