With her honey-colored bangs blowing across her forehead, three-year-old Jessica Duke motored across Derryberry Quad in her wheelchair. Wearing a purple dress and a confident grin, she saw her family and several strangers looking at her, waiting for her verdict. As a beige and white pony pulled her gift, a purple pony cart, around the quad, she couldn't hold back -- "I love it!"
Jessica's loving her pony cart is the middle of a story that began at Tennessee Tech and ended with a heartwarming gesture shared with thousands of Middle Tennessee television viewers.
The story began when Filomena Walker, director of Tennessee's Early Intervention System office housed at Tennessee Tech, and Stephen Canfield, a university engineering professor, put their resources together.
Above Walker's desk, dozens of children's faces smile down from a bulletin board. She's been able to help them physically, socially and emotionally through TEIS by identifying their special needs before the age of three and coordinating services to help.
Canfield's design classes take on projects that fill special needs for disabled children and adults. A typical project takes engineering expertise, community involvement to defray costs and a lot of time.
"But no one minds when the result is engineering put into practice to help make someone's life easier -- or just a little more fun," said Canfield.
More fun is what Jessica needed. Living on a Mennonite farm in Woodbury, Tenn., with 11 brothers and sisters, she's spent most of her life watching them have fun. Jessica has battled disabilities since birth and has only one leg, which doesn't support any weight.
Renea and Alan Duke have cared for Jessica since she was very young and are in the process of adopting her. After speech and language therapy to overcome a slight hearing impairment, Jessica's language skills are now excellent, and she has no trouble telling you what she wants.
What Jessica wanted was a pony and a way to take a ride with it. A neighbor had been letting the family borrow a pony, so the Dukes and Walker came up with the idea of a pony cart. A specially designed cart would give Jessica a way to traverse the farm and keep up with the other children.
Canfield put his students to work on a stable cart with a braking system and a special handicapped seat that left room for other riders. The students gathered donated materials and painted it Jessica's favorite color, purple.
The entire Duke clan planned to come on the pick-up day, so the event needed some fanfare.
The university's public affairs office contacted Nashville television station WKRN-Channel 2. Soon after hearing from WKRN reporter Melissa Penry, the public affairs office realized that everyone would have a better time if a pony could be found to pull the cart. A few hurried phone calls later, local business owner Susan Childers, volunteered her pony.
The pony had attracted quite a crowd by the time Jessica made her way to the quad, but she was undaunted. She said, "I love it!" and readied herself to ride. But as Canfield started to pull the safety belt over her head, the tears came.
"She had just spent several weeks in a body cast after surgery," Renae explained. "The belt reminded her of the cast."
Jessica was not afraid to wear the lap belt and let an older sister ride along. Soon Jessica was smiling as the pony whisked the girls around the quad with children and photographers racing beside.
Penry asked Jessica what she would name a pony of her own.
"Pickles," Jessica said.
Penry's pun-filled report -- she couldn't resist saying Jessica had "gotten the cart before the horse" -- aired twice that night and once the next morning.
That would have been a perfectly happy ending to the story, but soon after the story aired, the Dukes received a phone call from a banker in Lascassas, Tenn. He had met a man looking for the little girl who wanted a pony nammail/ed "Pickles."
Dwayne Cawphon of Walk with Me Stables in Lascassas had seen the Channel 2 story and wanted to offer Jessica a registered saddle horse "who's kind of small and just perfect for a little girl like Jessica," said Renae.
Jessica made the news again when Channel 2 covered Pickles' arrival. It will be a little while before Jessica has lone reign with the cart because "Jessica's such a go-getter," Renae said.Jessica had just one thing to say, "Thank you."