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Commack students help kids with cerebral palsy

Commack High School students Mike Pfundstein, 16, and

Commack High School students Mike Pfundstein, 16, and Andrew Franceschina, 18, make a quick fix to one of the interactive displays they created with classmates for the students at United Cerebral Palsy Children's Center in Commack. (July 11, 2012) Credit: Erin Geismar

Joseph Castello wheeled his walker around to face a large mural of a circus and broke into a toothy smile as music started to stream from attached speakers.

As he stood and listened, one of his younger classmates at the United Cerebral Palsy Children’s Center, ran up and pushed a large yellow button on the face of the mural, which made the sound of the horn on a clown car honking.

“Joey loves music,” said Virginia Castagna, a registered occupational therapist who coordinates services at the center. “He keeps a good beat, and he’s just started to be able to tolerate wearing headphones.”

The circus display was one of a handful of large-scale interactive educational exhibits designed and built by students at Commack High School for the UCP Children’s Center, which is located in Commack and educates students from preschool through age 21. Like the circus display, which exposes the students to music and other sounds and stimulates the senses, each exhibit was designed with the specific needs of the UCP students in mind.

Roughly 20 Commack High School students participated in the club Real Problems, Real Solutions, which tasks them with crafting, designing and executing tools for people with disabilities.

The displays, all built on rolling carts, are entertaining activities, but educational,  for the students. For example, in one jungle exhibit, students can control the movements of the animals behind the glass by pulley or lever, and each are accessible to students in wheelchairs. Other displays offer exercises in color or number association, and also pair a physical action with a visual result.

UCP principal Sherri Glazer, who is also director of educational services, said she was impressed by the students’ abilities and dedication. She said the students have even come back to the school since unveiling the displays in order to tweak certain elements.

“They really took the time to learn about our population,” she said. “These really incorporate a lot of the things our students need from preschool all the way up to 21.”

Commack technology teacher Joseph Castrogivanni said the program stems from a $27,000 grant the school won three years ago from the national bank ING to use technology to help people with disabilities. He said his students have been working on various projects since then, and this year’s project for the UCP Children’s Center used the last of the grant money.

He said it was an important experience for the students that applied engineering, math, science and technology skills to a real problem. In addition, he said his students benefited from spending time with and learning about people with disabilities.

“By having them here in this environment,” he said, “it changes them.”

Anthony Pensiero, 17, of Commack, said the group began the prototype phase of the project in the fall and didn’t actually start building anything until May.

Throughout the process, they visited UCP and met with teachers and therapists there, including Castagna, who gave them pointers about what would benefit their students.

“We were able to work as a team to build something helpful for these kids that we never could have done alone,” he said, adding that it was a collaborative and creative process that often kept the group after school until late at night. “That’s the beauty of this.”

Stephen Friedman, president and chief executive of UCP of Suffolk, said the results of their efforts are immeasurable.

“Watching their faces when the kids use these tools,” he said, “there’s nothing better.”

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