SALT LAKE CITY — The little pink electric car jolted forward with the touch of a large, brightly colored button that covered the steering wheel.
It was the first time Gallia Luna experienced such movement on her own. And the curious toddler wasn't quite sure she liked it, but she kept exploring the new and somewhat exciting window to her world.
At 2 years old, she is just learning to walk on her own and still doesn't eat or speak without help. Given that she miraculously survived a traumatic birth at 24 weeks gestation, Gallia still has a long way to go.
Therapists and assistive technology specialists with the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation's Go Baby Go program are helping her get there.
They retrofitted the toy car to help Gallia develop motor skills, which can lead to advances in other areas, including cognitive, social and language development, said Lauren Ayala, a physical therapist with the University of Utah's Developmental Assessment Clinic. She works with Gallia and said the earlier children can learn how to navigate their own world, the better.
"For many with various disabilities, all they know is being picked up in one place and put down someplace else, which, even if it is in the same room, can seem like an entirely different place to them because they didn't do the moving to get there," Ayala said.
Able-bodied children typically develop a sense of independent mobility when they begin crawling, around 8 months of age.
But that wasn't the case for Gallia, or a number of children who are referred to the Utah Center for Assistive Technology for adapted devices that might help them become more mobile on their own.
"What we do helps kids be a kid for the first time, to experience what their peers might already be experiencing," said the center's director, Mike Wollenzien. He said various devices help people of varying abilities live more independently for longer — giving them hope of a more normal and productive life.
And that is all that Lorena Luna hopes for her daughter.
"I would love for her to be able to walk on her own, eat for herself and speak," she said through a Spanish interpreter when the family came to pick up the car for Gallia on Thursday. "I give thanks to God and to the hospital and the doctors that she is here with us today."
Luna wasn't aware she was pregnant and had gone to the hospital with what she didn't know was labor pains. Gallia was born in a bathroom toilet there and her uncle, Gorge Luna, helped to keep her alive before medical help could assist.
Doctors didn't expect Gallia to make it through the night, but the tiny baby ended up living and came home five months later with a feeding tube and oxygen supplementation, along with instructions to follow up with state disability services.
Parents often want to give their child "the best chances they might have in life," Ayala said, adding that many facilitate multiple experiences with therapy, either from private services or those offered through state and federally funded programs.
The Go Baby Go program, patterned after one developed at the University of Deleware, exists to assist kids as young as 6 months old with various mobility needs. But the center also helps Utahns of all ages with various issues, including seating and computing abilities, adaptations and other aids to daily living that might help to accommodate a person with special needs at home or a job site.
"We make all sorts of modifications," said occupational therapist and assistive technology specialist Kevin Christensen. He calls himself a "Jack of all trades" and looks forward to working with his team of occupational, recreational and physical therapists to solve any problem that might increase someone's reach or ability.
"It puts them on par with their peers," Wollenzein said. "Helps them become more interactive, learn cause and effect and other applications that are necessary in life."
The cars used in the Go Baby Go program, along with other adaptations that are made at the center, are either purchased by the families who use them or are subsidized based on the family's income/ability to pay.
But Christensen said they're happy to assess and hopefully help with any need that they're presented. Of the more than 65 cars they've reworked in the last four years of the program, some are driven with big switches on the steering wheel, some are guided by a tap of the foot and others have a switch connected to a helmet device, depending on the abilities of the child driver.
Braxton Beard — who was also born prematurely at 24 weeks amid complications, and is also 2 years old — picked up his mobility assistive car on Thursday as well. He has trouble walking and seemed excited to be cruising around on his own.
It took him a while to get used to the kinetics, but once he did, Braxton was racing up and down the halls, bumping into walls and getting a feel for moving without help.
"It's exciting," Braxton's dad, Billy Beard, said. "Hopefully he's more able to get places he hasn't been able to get."
The center will aid with about 17 cars this year, but that all depends on demand. Wollenzein said they'd love to help more people and children experience life more independently.
And with the help of assistive devices, prior to kids getting a wheelchair, which Wollenzein said "will come soon enough," there's no telling where they might go.
The available programs and help Gallia has received in the United States, Lorena Luna said, has "made a lot possible for my daughter."
"We are very grateful for all the help," she said.
So, while Gallia came into the world quite unexpectedly, she may just continue to amaze the doctors, therapists and her doting family.