‘This has been a lifelong dream’
Pied Piper student gets mechanical self-feeder
ALPENA — This determined young woman is now able to feed herself, thanks to the coordination of many caring people and advanced technology.
Amanda Frey, a 25-year-old student in the Transition Program at Pied Piper School in Alpena, has been multiply impaired her whole life, lacking the ability to verbally speak or move her arms and legs. However, her zest for life and determination for independence, coupled with strong family support and excellent educational care, has kept her on the track to feeding herself.
On Tuesday morning, Frey’s family, educators, and occupational therapist surprised her with the big reveal of a mechanical feeding system she can operate from her wheelchair. A mechanism she operates with the back and sides of her head tells a computer which way to move a spoon into a variety of bowls in front of her, which then lifts the soft food to her mouth so she can feed herself.
She smiled and cooed as a loving group of people watched her try it out for the first time.
“This has been a lifelong dream to feed herself,” said Emily Woods, who is a co-guardian of Frey. She describes herself as “a great aunt by blood but grandma by love.”
Faith Schultz is her other co-guardian.
“She calls me ‘Ma’,” Schultz said while she was snapping a few photos. “She’s so excited.”
Using a computer device that reads her eye gaze, Frey communicated the following statement to her special education teacher, Tina DenBleyker: “I am feeling excited to be able to eat all by myself. I use my wheelchair to move and my computer for talking. I am excited to use my spoon for the rest of my life.”
The mechanical feeding device is called the Obi self-feeder. Gary Phillips, assistive technology professional from National Seating and Mobility, delivered and set up the device for Frey to use.
“For the longest time she has desired to be able to eat independently,” said Larry Johns, principal of Pied Piper School. “Over the years, they have customized unique devices and approaches to increase her ability to eat with minimal assistance from another person.”
Frey’s unceasing determination to be as independent as possible, combined with her family’s desire to provide resources and opportunities to develop her independence have all led up to this monumental moment in her life.
Many caring people have been involved in Frey’s journey, providing guidance and professional assistance to help her gain access to current innovative technology.
Some of those people include Johns, DenBleyker, and Dr. Jamie McClintic, occupational therapist for the Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona Educational Service District. Service providers Monica Saddler, speech pathologist, and Steven Barbeau, physical therapy assistant, worked with McClintic to write a lengthy letter to her insurance company justifying the device as medically necessary.
On Oct. 6, 2022, DenBleyker conducted a routine home visit to obtain some signatures from Frey’s guardians. During that visit, DenBleyker watched Frey attempting to feed herself using various prototype designs and homemade versions of a self-feeder. DenBleyker knew she needed to do something to help, so she reached out to McClintic, who specializes in assistive technology.
“After seeing Amanda’s determination to independently feed herself, a skill most take for granted, I knew I had to find a way for her dream to become a reality,” DenBleyker said. “As a special education teacher, my goal is to help all students achieve their full potential. Collaborating on this project with Jamie, who also genuinely cares, is just one of the many examples that shows the commitment we have not only to our chosen professions, but also to whom we serve.”
“Tina dreamt really big, but she reached out to the right team,” McClintic said. “Together, we had the expertise to identify Amanda’s strengths and pair it with the perfect assistive device allowing her to overcome a significant challenge and achieve greater independence. Watching this process unfold for Amanda was priceless.”
Frey has won statewide awards for her ability to utilize technology to its fullest capacity, a press release from the AMA ESD stated.
“She is a brilliant young girl who, unfortunately, is at the mercy of her body,” the release noted. “She was diagnosed at birth with having spastic quadriplegia and daily she figures out her own work adaptive methods to complete tasks you and I might take for granted. Using her tongue and nose she is able to independently turn pages and read a book.”
Principal Johns shared that his dream for the students who attend Pied Piper School is to not only give them a great education, but to provide them with the skills they need for independent living long after leaving there. This is Frey’s last year at Pied Piper, and she can feel good about eating independently now.
“She works relentlessly and envisions a future life filled with independence,” the AMA ESD release said. “Technology is improving by the minute and these new developments allow Amanda various opportunities to fulfill this wish.”
For now, she will have fun eating with what she calls her “Magic Spoon.”