Volunteer gives hope to children with special needs

Monday, April 8, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was a constant struggle for Abby Gomel, 4, to feed herself.

Her arms were too short to reach down to her plate, and even her therapists at the Children's Therapeutic Learning Center, a school for children with special needs in Kansas City, were giving up hope.

Then Jack Miller, a volunteer in Abby's classroom, came to her rescue.

He went home one night and, in his basement workshop, created a special dish holder for Abby. He cut a square block of wood on a slant and carved a hole in the middle, just the right size for a bowl.

With this special dish holder pushed up close to her, Abby now can use a fork attached to her arm by a strap and feed herself.

Miller, a retired engineer, has been volunteering at Children's TLC for 15 years. He's designed and built dozens of gadgets and devices to help children with special needs, and he's repaired everything from broken chairs to tricycles to toy wheels.

"It's amazing the things that Jack can whip up," said Luanne Hurst, a therapist at the school.

A thrill to help

The classroom where he volunteers is filled with his creations. He's made stools for the children to sit on while he reads them books. He's made steps for the children to reach the changing table. Coffee cans are covered with strong plastic lids he made, with triangle, square and round holes cut out so the children can practice their shapes.

"To tell you the truth, I don't really remember everything I've made," Miller said. "But it's such a thrill to help these therapists and these kids."

Shirley Patterson, executive director of Children's TLC, said Miller's knack of creating devices to help the children and repairing their equipment has made him indispensable.

"Jack loves to make things, and we love it that he loves to help us out," she said. "He's a really special volunteer."

Patterson said that many times the school can't afford to buy all the kinds of things the children need and that many times the right item to help a child adapt in the classroom just isn't available from the companies that sell them.

Sue Bina, a physical therapist at Children's Mercy, said she wished she had someone around like Miller to help out at her clinic.

"We know what we need for these kids, and we look through the catalogs, but oftentimes we just can't find quite the right thing," Bina said.

"It would be so nice to have someone with the creative mind and the engineering ability to work with us," she said. "Because of lack of time, lack of ability, lack of money, it would be helpful to have someone like Jack Miller around when problems evolve."

In the gymnasium, among the brightly colored mats and giant balls, a set of wooden steps sits in a corner. Miller made those steps years ago to help the children learn to walk up and down. The steps can be adjusted to different sizes as the children gain their confidence.

"We had a little boy who was very limited with his walking," Miller said. "And for some reason, he had a terrible fear of going up and down. His therapist worked with him week after week after week. I made those stairs to help him. They were only 3 inches tall.

"Finally, one day I came in and the therapist said, 'Jack, come see what he can do.' I knew that that little boy had finally taken a step. It really gave me a thrill."

Hooked the first day

Miller started volunteering after his wife died more than 15 years ago. He contacted the volunteer ministry of his church, and it had just gotten a call that day from Children's TLC asking for volunteers.

"My initial reaction was to tell them no because I thought it would be too heart-wrenching," Miller said. "But I said I'd give it a try."

He was hooked after the first day.

"When I go in on Monday mornings, they're in the gym," he said. "You should see them run up and give me hugs."

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