The cars were any kid’s dream gift. For starters, they were motorized. Push a button—or in the case of Violet’s, a wire—and they go. Fast. Violet’s car came with a purple bow and was inspired by the Disney movie, Frozen. Brentyn’s car looked like a pirate ship on wheels.
But what makes the cars really special is that they are one-of-a-kind joy rides thanks to the ingenuity of the URI students. Applying their kindness, skill and smarts, physical therapy and biomedical engineering students modified the cars to meet each child’s needs.
For 19-month-old Violet, whose left arm was damaged after a football-sized cancerous tumor was removed from it when she was an infant, that meant installing a wire that encourages her to use her left hand. For 5-year-old Brentyn, who has cerebral palsy, that meant installing a push button on the car’s steering wheel that he can use instead of a foot pedal.
Three of the five students—Cara Nunez, of East Greenwich, an engineering student; and Sandra Maliangos, of Warwick, and Coral Hines, of Jamestown, both getting their doctorates in physical therapy—delivered the cars to Violet and Brentyn at the physical therapy gym at Independence Square on URI’s Kingston campus. There was no doubt they were satisfied. Their smiles spoke for them.
“This is awesome,” said Vicky Theroux, of Warwick, as she watched her son, wide-eyed and giddy, race around the room. “He’s super smart and very engaging. He wants to do what other kids do. Now he can.”
Boosting self-esteem and making kids feel like they’re part of the gang are two goals of Lil’ Rhody Riders, launched by Maliangos and Hines for a class leadership project. The program is modeled after Go Baby Go at the University of Delaware.
The students raised money to buy cars through a crowdfunding site and then reached out to biomedical engineering students for their technical and mechanical expertise.
Word got out about Lil’ Rhody Riders, and requests from parents poured in. Violet’s parents, URI staff members Angela and Dan Graney of South Kingstown, heard about the cars through Nunez. Angela is assistant director of the International Engineering Program Living and Learning Community. Dan is assistant dean for Outreach and Intervention in the Division of Student Affairs.
Maliangos and Hines met with the Graneys and Theroux, as well as Brentyn’s other mom, Vicky Richardson, to determine the best course of action and then took those suggestions to the engineering students.
Violet’s tumor—a rare cancer called infantile fibrosarcoma—was removed in October 2014. She’s had eight chemotherapy treatments and another surgery, this one to repair damaged tendons on the fingers of her left hand. Hasbro Children’s Hospital, where she spent 226 days, became her home away from home.
Today, Violet is cancer-free: MRI scans show no sign of the illness.
Violet’s car entices her to use her left hand. She accelerates by pressing an upright wire on the handlebar’s left side. The right side is covered with feathers or soft beads to interest her right hand and keep it from moving to the handlebar’s left side. Brentyn’s car allows him to stop and go with ease.
“We looked at every car that was out there,” said Vicky Theroux. “They either had foot pedals, which he can’t use, or complicated steering wheels. This car is perfect.”
Violet was the first to arrive to check out her new toy. After scurrying about to introduce herself, she rushed up to her lavender-colored car and planted a kiss on a sticker of Olaf, the snowman in Frozen. A few minutes later, she was behind the wheel.
“Right here,” said Maliangos, kneeling next to Violet and pointing to the car’s wire.
Violet pressed it gently with her tiny fingers and the car took off, to a pink ball, to walking bars, to mats.
“You go girl,” said Maliangos.
“Yay!” her fans shouted. “Go, Vi, Go.”
The Graneys and their other children, Harrison, 9, and Paige, 6, were thrilled to see Violet so happy.
“The students are amazing,” said Dan. “They took on a project just to help kids. We couldn’t be more thankful to them. Obviously, Violet loves the car.”
Violet was too busy driving to be interviewed. Her destination: a very big piece of furniture.
“Oh, right into the desk she goes,” said Dan, laughing. “You got to learn how to steer, baby girl.”
More cars, including two Land Rovers and a John Deere tractor, are on the assembly line. After winter break, the students expect to get back to work and deliver more cars to children in Rhode Island and beyond in the spring. So far, the students have raised $2,500 for Lil’ Rhody Riders.
“All this clapping and smiling is what I like to see,” said Nunez. “I’m excited to stay on the project. You hope the work you do helps at least one person. This is what it’s all about.”
To contribute, please contact the students through the program’s Facebook page.
“We’re so grateful the students were willing to do this,” said Angela Graney. “For me, because I work for the College of Engineering, it also warms my heart. What the engineering and physical therapy students are doing solves real-life problems for kids, and what’s better than that. ”
Violet Graney rides in her new motorized toy car modified by University of Rhode Island engineering and physical therapy students.
University of Rhode Island students, from left to right, Cara Nunez, Sandra Maliangos, and Coral Hines help Violet Graney and Brentyn Theroux with their new motorized toy cars.
Violet Graney’s siblings, Paige and Harrison, help their 19-month-old sister celebrate her new toy car.
URI photos by Nora Lewis