MADISON, Wis. - For the past several months, a group of 24 freshman engineering students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been building a sensory playhouse for an 11-year-old girl named Laura who has severe disabilities.
The playhouse includes toys that can engage her senses and improve her motor skills. It even includes a camera that can connect to her mom's cellphone Wifi, so she, Heidi Wertjes, can keep an eye on her at all times to make sure Laura is safe.
"We just really wanted to help Laura, and especially the day we met Laura, it made it all so much more real and we were like, 'We are really going to make this the best playhouse ever,'" said Gwyneth Simon, an engineering student who helped construct the playhouse.
Laura has cerebral palsy, cortical blindness and a seizure disorder. She is one of Wertjes' nine children. Six of those children are adopted. Laura is one of the adopted ones.
"She's full of adventure," Wertjes said.
On Tuesday, Wertjes and Laura got to see the playhouse for the first time and get together with the students who built it for them.
While Laura got a chance to test out the playhouse as the students continued to work on it, Wertjes reflected on why the playhouse is bittersweet for her.
"She had a brother and they were very close," Wertjes said. He died. I think of all of the hours of fun they would have had together."
Her son, Lucas, was also adopted. At 17 years old, his body temperature shut down overnight.
The students are finishing up some final touches to the playhouse before delivering it to her home next Tuesday.
"They're delivering it next Tuesday to our house and setting it up. The next day is the anniversary, the fifth year that Lucas died," Wertjes said.
While Lucas' memory will forever be remembered in the playhouse walls, Wertjes knows Laura will make many new happy memories as well.
"It will be a wonderful place for her to be," Wertjes said.
On top of providing a wonderful new adventure for Laura, the students who built it also learned some valuable lessons from their first project of their careers.
"Hard work pays off and if you really want something to turn out well, you have to put in the work to equal what you want out of it," said engineering student Aaron Skubal.
"To see her come and smile and see how much she loved it, made it really awesome," said engineering student Stephen Foley. "It was very much worth it. Just to see the look on her face when she saw it."
The engineering department is always looking for new ideas for their students to work on. If you have an idea you would like to submit, place contact Tracy Puccinelli at 608-265-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find the application online at www.bme.wisc.edu.
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