GRAND RAPIDS — When Grand Valley State University engineering students Phil DeJonge and Jake Hall enrolled in their product design class last fall, they didn’t expect to help change the life of 2-year-old Madison Riemersma. Madison has spina bifida, a condition that causes loss of function and sensation in the lower half of the body.

Lisa Kenyon, assistant professor of physical therapy, had been working with Madison and her family and asked students in Grand Valley’s School of Engineering to help.

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“While Madison was making great progress on her walker, we wanted to find a way for her to play outside with her siblings,” said Kenyon, who is also a physical therapist for Mary Free Bed Hospital.

DeJonge and Hall found a Barbie Jeep on Craigslist to repurpose for the project. Airway Oxygen, a West Michigan company, donated a joystick that allows Madison to drive the pink Jeep. A remote control device was built for her parents to control the Jeep. From there, DeJonge and Hall determined steering capabilities and mounted a 12-volt electric battery to the Jeep. They went through several testing phases with Madison to install proper cushion and seat belts that would provide support and safety.

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Developing the control systems was the most difficult, said Hall, who is studying biomedical engineering.

“We programmed the car to have gradual speeds, similar to a regular vehicle,” he said. “When Madison first drove the Jeep, she had a hard time, but after a while she got the hang of it.”

Madison’s mother, Valerie Riemersma, of Allegan, said the Jeep makes it easier for her daughter to play with the rest of her siblings.

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“Madison is the seventh child out of eight, so when they’re all playing with each other outside, it can be hard for Madison to be part of that,” she said. “When she gets in her Jeep, she can just cruise around and participate in the fun with the other kids. She doesn’t have limits like she did before.”