CARLSBAD — The Kelly Elementary School’s robotics team is striving for inclusion through several fundraising efforts, including authoring a book in honor of their special needs teammate and donating the proceeds to a nonprofit that raises awareness about the special needs community.
Over the past year, the ComoFun team has expanded its scope thanks to the group’s inspiration, Bailey Benton, a special needs teammate diagnosed with autism, Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy.
Since the ComoFun team’s focus this season is on fitness, the group helped design a chariot for Benton, allowing her to run with her friends and family. The team also runs with Benton twice each week while wearing masks.
But now the team is blasting forward with a drive for inclusion, fundraising and even authoring a book.
A new mission is one of inclusion and how to teach kids and adults how to approach and make friends with people with special needs.
“I feel like it’s become so much more than this robotics competition,” said Nicole Buchanan, the team’s coach.
The team — fifth-graders Olivia Johnson, Connor Marshall, Bradley Lyon, Emery Cramond, Alana Gomes, Moorea Marchi, Benton and third-grader Griffin Marchi — has pivoted during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep their minds busy. They started with the First Lego League challenge of fitness, so they designed a chariot.
Then they connected with a Dutch company, Infento, to see how to prototype their design, which features a run-walk capability. The concept is Benton would be pushed for much of the run or race, but at the finish line, the chariot could turn into a walker so she, or other special needs people, could cross the line on their own. Johnson called it a “transformer.”
While the team was in the midst of designing Benton’s chariot, they also partnered with Ainsley’s Angels of America in Southern California, a special needs nonprofit. As the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out running competitions, the team joined a virtual 5K run through Ainsley’s Angels, raising $3,005 for the nonprofit.
Between outside projects, the team created a student inclusion leadership program at Kelly, which has two students per class as conduits to creating a more inclusive atmosphere for special needs students, Buchanan said.
Also, the ComoFun team leads a virtual fitness class with two other special needs classes for 20 minutes per class focusing on mental and physical fitness.
“All of our experience with meeting our friend Bailey, we want other kids to have a good inclusion journey and being friendly to kids with disabilities,” Moorea Marchi said.
Finally, the team decided to get into the world of publishing. So, Marchi wrote a book titled, “Innovate 8 and the Original Adventures of Opal.” The team hopes to eventually get the book into all of Carlsbad’s elementary schools.
The 55-page book centers on a robotics team forging a unique bond with several special-needs students, including Opal (a portrayal of Benton), before discovering the students have superpowers.
“Most kids never learn how to interact with people with disabilities, especially with intellectual disabilities,” a description of the book reads. “With the help of a few passionate teachers, and through their common goal of robotics competition, these friends were able to discover the true roots of meaningful inclusion.”
The book promotes empathy, inclusion, compassion and friendship with tips on how to approach those with special needs, along with facts about Down Syndrome.
Additionally, each team member, or small group of students, plans on writing a book with Johnson and Moorea Marchi based on a relationship the team formed with Cece Bell, a deaf student who authored “El Deafo.”
“Each book is from a different character’s point of view and this one they have a new student in their class who is deaf, so they learn sign language,” Johnson said.
After meeting Bell and learning about her experiences, Johnson said she and Marchi both want to learn American Sign Language.
Currently, the book is available on Amazon and Lulu, a self-publishing company, but the team is creating a website to sell their books. (Amazon charges nearly $7 per book, cutting into the team’s profits used to print books and make financial donations to Ainsley’s Angels and other nonprofits.)