Rachel rides high with a little help from her friends

A story to warm your heart…..

It was a classic summer childhood scene: a dad gliding alongside his 8-year-old daughter as she learned to navigate her first bicycle.

But Rachel Crawford’s maiden voyage Friday aboard her purple two-wheeler wasn’t your ordinary rite of passage. In addition to her father, there were four senior USC mechanical engineering students, an engineering professor, the girl’s mother, two sisters, one brother and a family friend who were determined that Rachel – even with an amputated right leg and an impaired left leg – would be able to ride a bike.

Rachel Crawford gets to grips with her first bike

“It’s a very intense situation right now,” said her father, Mark Crawford, as Rachel made short trial runs in the courtyard of USC’s Swearingen Engineering Center. “She’s getting the hang of it.”

    The four USC students – Nick Lizer, Rex Garrison, Sayeedur “Bappy” Rahman and Jeremy Kostoff – adjusted the seat, tinkered with the foot straps and ran beside her as she adjusted to a thumb throttle to guide her bicycle. They scrutinized the bike as she rode, conferred with each other and made a trip to retrieve wrenches. There was, inevitably, one spill. Then, finally, a dazzling smile from the shy Indian girl who made a short smooth glide and then came to a stop.

    There was a huge measure of satisfaction for the students and their adviser, mechanical engineering professor David Rocheleau, who have been working since January to design a bicycle that Rachel, who was adopted by Mark and Pam Crawford two years ago from a Mumbai orphanage, could ride by pedaling with one foot.

    The obstacles were obvious. Rachel wears a prosthetic right leg and has little range of motion in her left, the result of nearly fatal injuries suffered in a train accident when she was 3 that claimed the life of her biological mother.

    “She was either hit by a train or could have fallen out of a train,” Pam Crawford, a psychiatrist with the S.C. Department of Mental Health, said. “She was found about 2 a.m.” No one knew her birthday or her exact age, although the Crawfords have decided to mark her age as 8.

    After Pam Crawford saw Rachel’s photograph on an adoption website, the Crawfords – parents of two biological children, Ben, 15, Abi, 13, and an adopted 5-year-old daughter, Sara – began a whirlwind adoption process that took less than five months.

    “We got really lucky because some of these adoptions take years to go through,” Pam Crawford said. Mark Crawford, a stay-at-home dad, and Ben, traveled to India to get her. Rachel, known only by one name “Babli,” arrived in South Carolina in October 2008. After many medical consultations, doctors here decided it was best to amputate Rachel’s right leg, an operation undertaken at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville. But all along the child, a rising second-grader at the Columbia Jewish Day School, wanted to ride a bicycle.

    “When she was about to get it amputated last March I told her that would be one of the things that she could look forward to when this was all done,” her mother said.

    Pam Crawford wasn’t quite sure how that would be accomplished so she rang up Rocheleau, the graduate director of USC’s department of mechanical engineering and someone she had never met, to seek his help.

    Although the semester had already begun, Rocheleau thought the project would serve as an excellent experience for seniors who are required under the school’s accreditation rules to complete a major design project, which at USC is called the Capstone Design Experience.

    Students, normally accustomed to working on industrial projects, clamored to be assigned to the design team, he said.

    “This was No. 1,” he said. “They could really put their arms around it.”

    Rocheleau’s 12-year-old daughter, Emma, donated her bicycle which the students completely took apart. They developed power for the bicycle through a hub motor, cleverly hiding the battery pack in a white-and-purple striped plastic box, an addition that could be taken for a stylish bike accessory. The left pedal remains fixed, but Rachel can pedal with her prosthetic foot.

    “We wanted her to feel she belonged to her age group and to feel comfortable,” said Rahman, of North Augusta.

    “We make sure we put in the hours,” said Kostoff, who is from Florence. “I didn’t want to tell the little girl, after getting her hopes up for six months, that it didn’t work.”

    Garrison, of Columbia, reckoned the team had logged “hundreds” of hours on the project. In addition to the obvious mechanical aspects of the project, they didn’t forget the little touches, making sure there were enough girlish features to appeal to a 8-year-old girl.

    There are pink handholds, a bell and a pink-and-white flower peeking out of one of the handlebars, a finishing touch credited to Lizer, of Toms River, N.J.

    “Absolutely gorgeous,” declared Pam Crawford as Rocheleau wheeled out the finished bike. “You have done an amazing job.”

    Now, the Crawford clan plans to don bicycle safety helmets and ride as a family, although they acknowledged they will have to study the laminated directions Rocheleau provided to understand exactly how the battery pack and throttle work.

    Rocheleau and his student team plan to be on hand if the Crawfords need them.

    “This was probably one of the best, if not the best, design project that we’ve ever done,” Rocheleau said.

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