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Boy's wish granted by robotics students Print E-mail

High school team creates machine that allows third-grader to play fetch with his companion.

Kristen Feldmann of Liberty Twp. and her 9-year-old son Konrad had just finished two weeks of training with a companion dog last November.  Konrad, a VanGorden Elementary third-grader diagnosed with cerebral palsy, was sitting in his wheelchair. Bingo, the 2-year-old companion dog, approached his new friend, plopped a chew toy in his lap, sat and waited with urgent, playful puppy eyes.

"It was really the first time anyone or anything had ever asked Konrad to play unsolicited ... just basically a dog wanting to play with a boy," Kristen Feldmann said.

Konrad was born premature, kept in the hospital for the first six weeks of his life and diagnosed at age 1 with the neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination.

Because of his condition, he has limited use of his arms and legs and had no ability to play with his new dog.

"He's gone through a lot," Kristen Feldmann said, patting her son's clenched hand in their living room last week.

"He's gone through more than any child should have to deal with."

But Debi Williams, Lakota Local Schools' adapted physical education teacher, had an idea — and an available resource.

The Lakota robotics team had recently started a division of students that fabricate machines to make certain tasks easier for people with disabilities.

They had been successful helping a blind student stock shelves at Kroger. Could they help Konrad play fetch with Bingo?

Led by robotics team coaches Doug Noxsel from Lakota Schools and Dave Campbell from Butler Tech, nine young men and women got to work.

"I thought it was going to be some rudimentary device, but they came up with so much more than what we expected," Kristen Feldmann said. "It's amazing what they were able to do."

The robotics team purchased an automated ball-thrower — called GoDogGo! — for $150, and retrofitted it to meet Konrad's limited muscular ability. They stripped the machine of its internal components, added a special switch Konrad could use and pieced it back together.

It was the first time for some of the students to build something other than for competition or personal gratification.

"You want to do everything you can to make that relationship (between Konrad and Bingo) stronger, because you could just see how much it meant to him," said senior Ryan Matthys, who worked on the project. "We thought if we could make this work, it could be something he could build on."

And no one's more excited than Bingo. After being given the "release" command signalling playtime, Konrad pushes down on a lever switch. As the device winds up, Bingo leaps to attention, a tennis ball is launched and Konrad's hearty chuckle fills the air.

For just a moment, the wheelchair, the back brace and the disorder are gone and it's just a boy and his pet playing in the front yard.

"It's pretty basic," the child's mother said. "But it makes a big difference in his life. And it shows us that he has that ability. Any progress is huge in our lives, and this is definitely progress."

The feeling is just as meaningful for nine high school students who, earlier this year, were strangers to the Feldmanns.

"This is about bringing together a child and a pet," said Lakota West senior Dave Burkett, who also worked on the project. "Dogs are supposed to be man's best friend. So, now Konrad's closer to his best friend."

 
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