From home workshops, volunteers create adaptive tools to keep students learning

The Assistive Device Center designs and constructs hand-crafted furniture, toys, sensory quilts and more for children with visual impairments.

Shelby reads a book while siting in a chair built in the Assistive Device Center

Over the last several months, Heidi Fieldstone has sewn straps for chairs to help support healthy posture in Perkins students. 

Nancy Jarzombek has painted a lot of that furniture, decorating it with jungle animals, cars and trucks and more to bring smiles to thefaces of toddlers and their family members.

And David Morrison has dedicated time to making frames of PVC pipes from which to hang toys and chimes to engage kids with visual impairments. 

All of them are volunteers of the Assistive Device Center, which for more than three decades has relied on generous members of the community to help build adaptive equipment to help students with disabilities learn. 

“Volunteers are key to making this work possible,” says Molly Campbell, director of the Assistive Device Center. “Our students really benefit from it.” 

In addition to the work done at home by volunteers, Assistive Device Center engineers have been making materials unique to this moment, a moment that has created new and urgent needs.

For example, on top of creating the devices students have always needed, staff members are now making custom shields for trays and tables and  sewing vinyl covers for movement equipment for easier cleaning. And these materials are already having a huge impact in Perkins classrooms and elsewhere.

“Many of the swings and rocker boards we use are covered in carpeting that is difficult to clean,” says Anna Perlmutter, an occupational therapist in the Lower School and Early Learning Center. “Now, we are able to provide our students with sensory activities, and easily clean the swings and rocker boards between each use.

Without the help of the Assistive Device Center, it would be very hard for some children to get the sensory input that they need throughout their day.”

Volunteers and staff have also become adept at communicating and coordinating over Zoom so as to stay in touch with each other and maintain the sense of community. 

“It speaks volumes of the strength of the volunteer program that we have stayed connected and kept working and contributing through these times,” says Fieldstone. 

At the heart of all this work, though, is the common cause of empowering children with visual impairments and additional disabilities. 

“It’s been truly wonderful that I can continue to contribute to the Perkins community, especially the young children who sit in our chairs and use our tables,” Fieldstone continues. “I was so happy to be able to bring some of the workshop into my home and onto my sewing machine.” 

“It means a lot to me to be part of the Assistive Device Center family. In this time of shut-down and social distance, my weekly painting assignments have become a touchstone, keeping me part of a larger effort to help out — and reminding me what’s really important in the world!” 

– Jarzombek

Even longtime volunteers like Morrison say the new realities brought about by the pandemic have given him “a whole new reason to get up each day.” 

“I’ve been a tinkerer all my life,” he says. “So imagine how I felt hearing of a three-year-old who would walk hands-out-in-front until receiving the cane I made, which I’m told turned that face into a smile as they scooted around the room… it’s just a really special place to be.”

In the Assistive Device Center, staff are still adjusting to coordinating projects remotely. But Campbell says they’re slowly ramping up. After all, they’re trying to put smiles on as many faces as possible. 

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