Who would have a thought a cartoon cow and some high school kids could reach through the silent and remote world of Dennison Perez?
Perez, 25, who has cerebral palsy and other disabilities, doesn't speak, stares at the floor, and tends to rock back and forth in his wheelchair.
But as he played Wii's cow-racing game, steering a bovine through pastures and over fences on a large television screen, Perez's face lit up as if he were in a real-life running of the bulls.
"That's a week's worth of reaction from him," said Lylian Melendez, director of therapeutic activities at United Cerebral Palsy of Philadelphia, as she and other staff members cheered on Perez and his rampaging cow.
Until recently, playing Wii, a popular activity at UCP, was out of the question for Perez because his stiff hands couldn't grasp a steering wheel or remote.
That was where a posse of resourceful teens from the Springside School in Chestnut Hill came in.
For the last four years, students taking a course in applied physics and design - along with boys from Chestnut Hill Academy, who share courses with the all-girls school - have received a hands-on education while helping others.
The course, an elective for juniors and seniors, puts into practice the principles they learned in freshman physics. After consulting with UCP staff on patients' needs, they find solutions to problems that disabled people encounter every day.
"That's the cool thing about this project," physics teacher Ellen Kruger said. "I didn't do any of this."
In 2008-09, students worked on gardening tools. Other years included shredders and athletic equipment.
This year, UCP staff requested Wii controllers. Nineteen students worked all year rigging Rube Goldberg-like devices so people who could barely move their arms could bowl or bobsled.
Kruger and students Elizabeth Lybrand and Greg Lobanov, both 17, tested three jury-rigged controllers on clients.
For Perez, who doesn't have the motor control to direct a Wii remote, they attached a dowel horizontally through a steering wheel so he could play simply by touching the dowel. Then they secured the wheel and remote to a wooden stand, using a bent nail and rubber bands. This allowed the steering wheel to move, but with a bit of resistance for control.
So Perez could play from his chair, they put the gadget on a box the height of his arms. Then, to focus his attention, they framed his chair with two yellow plywood boards with the word driver on them.
Voila! A race car.
It was hard to tell who was most excited - the school folks, UCP staff, or Perez.
"To see this in action, it's super fun," Kruger said as her students set up the game. "I would like to have all my classes have this component. It removes the question of 'Why is this important?' "
One look at Perez's face as he gripped the dowel and watched the action on the TV with a huge smile was all the answer they needed.
As he got the hang of it, the UCP staff cheered him on.
"Yeah, go, Denny. Good job, Denny. Go fast. Go fast. Hurry up," Melendez said.
She and others were amazed at the change in the normally aloof man.
"Only one other time I saw that. He was so animated and focused for so long," occupational therapist Beth Loving said.
Lybrand, a junior who was project manager for the group, said she liked the class because it was interactive.
"You get to see the good you're doing immediately," she said. Not to mention her new proficiency with a circular saw.
Lobanov, a senior who will study game design at Drexel University next school year, said seeing his ideas work was "awesome."
He's hoping that will happen with an intricate wooden structure that still needs some tinkering. It's for a client who wants to play Wii bowling despite limited use of his hands and arms.
Lobanov's device has a long pendulum that acts like a bowler's arm and holds the remote. All the player has to do is release a latch, which sets off the pendulum. As the arm swings, a wooden flap hits a button on the remote to roll the game's bowling ball.
"Bowling is the one Wii game that everybody loves," Melendez said. "This gives the client the opportunity to be engaged instead of having us do it for him or watching everybody else play. . . . How cool is that?"
Another challenge was adapting the bobsled game, which requires shaking a controller up and down and side to side, for a person with limited manual dexterity.
The group that worked on the game was stumped, said Kruger, until one boy went home and noticed a remote-control helicopter that he used to play with and thought, hey, this might work.
He took it apart and attached the motor with the rotating helicopter blade to the Wii remote to bounce it up and down, mimicking a shaking motion.
"This is the only one of the three we haven't tried," said Kruger, "so we'll see."
UCP client Jennifer Goodwin, 36, got to test-drive.
As her sled careered down the track, a huge smile spread across her face.
"Go, Jenny. Go, Jenny," Melendez said. "You steer it. You hold it. It's all you."
Kruger could tell right away her students had nailed it.
"We have immediate feedback and a very concrete goal," she said as Goodwin giddily slid through the game. "Helping somebody else."