Walking To Independence

March 09, 1995|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writer

See Eli walk. See him stand. Watch him turn from side to side.

Then listen to him laugh.

The 7-year-old, who was born with multiple disabilities that never allowed him to sit, walk or talk, this year has blossomed into a curious little boy. As teachers and physical therapists at the William S. Baer School look on with pride and coax him with love, Eli Wealcatch is slowly blazing a new trail.

Thanks to a metal "gait trainer," which looks like a large infant walker, Eli is able to stand and walk, going to different parts of his classroom, into the hallway and to the library. The exercise has allowed him to develop self-esteem, a sense of independence.

"The first time he really started moving in it, I was screaming. It's like opening the eyes of a blind person," Chavi Wealcatch, who moved her son to Baer last year so he could use the equipment, said yesterday. "He's thrilled when I say, 'It's supper time,' and he can walk to the table," she said.

"It makes you want to cry. One year ago, he could not roll, creep or sit," said Roxanne McLaughlin, a physical therapy assistant at Baer. The city school, for youngsters with multiple handicaps, has 160 students from 7 months to 21 years old.

In January, the school, near Coppin State College, bought 134 pieces of equipment -- including Eli's trainer -- with a $175,000 federal grant.

The trainers, tricycles, bicycles and a mobile "prone station," which allows students to stand or move by rolling large wheelchairlike tires, are part of a curriculum adopted this year to foster students' independence and self-awareness. The curriculum is modeled after a Bakersfield, Calif., program called Mobility Opportunities via Education, or MOVE.

Once the students learn to move and walk using the equipment, they develop stronger lungs, which gives them the strength to start speaking, school physical therapist Carolyn Steiner said.

Before the equipment was available, she and other physical therapists had to constantly hold the students and move their feet and arms to teach mobility. Now, the equipment allows the students freedom to teach themselves or to learn by watching their peers.

"This gives kids enough security that they are willing to move," Ms. Steiner said. "If you can get a child to understand it is their responsibility to bear their body weight, the care for them when they are adults will be easier."

In the hallways at Baer, the bikes and trikes are lined up awaiting students. The equipment is made in New York by Rifton Inc., the manufacturing arm of the Hutterian Brethren, a religious community.

So far, the teachers and administrators are pleased with the results.

Laura Savadow said she encourages her special education students ages 3 through 7 to walk to the toy chest and to a gym. In her small classroom, Eli and his two classmates smile with pride and applaud whenever they take a series of steps.

"They are advancing quicker," she said. "The progress we've seen has been so rapid and the self-confidence has helped them to learn."

"We are so tickled," said school Principal Shari Huene-Johnson. "We've seen the kids change."

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