Van Buren Co. First Grader Keeps Up with Classmates Thanks to Talents of TTU Engineering Students

Walking slowly beside her daughter, Shalla, Lisa Smith placed a cautious hand on the bike her little girl was attempting to ride for the first time.

It's a common anxious scene for most parents and their first graders, but it was an extraordinary moment for 6-year-old Shalla and her mom.

Shalla was born with spina bifida, a congenital defect where the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth. Although her general health is good, her legs are paralyzed.

"Shalla asked for a bike for Christmas, about the time most of her friends were getting their first bikes," said her maternal grandmother, Peggy Walling. "It's hard to say no to her anyway, but that was the hardest no yet."

But "no" wasn't the final answer; instead, the family tried to think about ways to say "yes." Lisa and her husband, Shane, thought about the people who helped the last time Shalla needed equipment that would help her fit in with her classmates.

Shalla lives in Spencer, and through the Van Buren County schools' disability coordinator, they found Tennessee Technological University assistant mechanical engineering professor Stephen Canfield and his senior mechanical design students.

Shalla's classroom computer tables, desks and work stations were all different heights, making it impossible for her to move from one area to the next and be at the right height without a special chair. The Van Buren County High School trades class built Shalla a chair, and Canfield's class fitted it with a mechanism to lower or raise her to the height of any table.

"It's important to be a part of the group," said Susan O'Connor, a service coordinator with the Tennessee Early Intervention System housed at TTU, who works with Shalla and her family. "Whether it's playing or studying, young children want to be with their friends and they want to fit in."

The Smiths called Canfield and took him the pinkest bike Wal-Mart had available. Then the class began figuring out how to motorize the bike, how to give Shalla variable control over the powerful motor and how to make the pedals move so the bike would look as normal as possible.

When Shalla came to campus to pick up the bike, she had one question -- "Does it work like my Harley?" -- checking to see if it was going to be like the smaller motorized vehicle she'd been practicing on.

In fact, the bike works a lot like her Harley. Like a four-wheeler, the bike has hand controls for acceleration and braking. With velcro shoes on the pedals, Shalla's feet can be fastened, making a special feature possible.

"We designed the controls so the pedals would rotate and move her legs for her so she would look like the other kids riding their bikes," said student Josh Knight of Dickson.

"And the extra benefit of the moving pedals is the therapy the motion provides for her legs," said O'Connor, with an agreeing nod from grandma.

And there's more good news for Shalla; the general mechanism can be transferred to larger bikes as she grows so she can adapt any bike she owns through the years.

"Shalla's wanted a bike ever since she knew what a bike was," said her paternal grandmother, Jeanie Smith. "It was always hard on her daddy to see her without something she wanted so dearly."

As Shalla took a tour on her bike under the watchful eye of about a dozen onlookers, students and relatives, she was fearless and seemed to block out most of the commotion going on, seriously concentrating on practicing. She didn't have much to say, only a big grin and a special whisper, " I like it Momma."
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