MECHANICSBURG, Ohio (AP) — The van bumped its way down the long country lane, and before it got to its destination at the red barn at the bottom of the hill, Michael Fuller already was smiling and waving from the back seat.
He knew what awaited him there: Rocky Grimes, a go-cart and 30 minutes of unbridled joy.
Trapped in a body twisted and bent by a congenital chromosomal disorder, 16-year-old Michael needs help just to get out of the van. And Rocky is there.
"Hey, buddy. How ya doin'?"
They waste no time as Rocky, a Valvoline baseball cap and a pony-tail holder keeping his hair out of the way, leans his face close to Michael's. Valerie Fuller, on the other side of her son, pulls out the iPad he is supposed to use to communicate. The non-verbal Michael hates it; he would rather use sign language. But for Rocky, he does whatever is asked.
Valerie puts the iPad in front of Michael. "Where's your go-cart folder?" she asks. He points to it. "Now what do you want to do today? Do you want to ask Rocky a question?"
Michael finds another button, taps it. A computerized voice asks on his behalf, "Can we go for a ride?"
Rocky straps Michael in the driver's seat and climbs in beside him, and they take off through a Rocky-designed obstacle course of 232 cones set up in a field. During this session at Rocky's business, Prescribed Power, Michael is at the wheel of the buggy that Rocky modified, not only to put the teenager in control but also to ensure that every turn of the wheel or push of a pedal helps him meet some physical goal that betters his body that too often rebels against him.
"Michael thinks it's just a ride, but it's so much more," Valerie said, smiling as she watches her son drive toward the setting sun. "Serendipity, fate, whatever you want to call it. Rocky was meant to be in our lives. We know that. He is a savior."
In the early 1980s, Rocky Grimes was scrapping his way through the streets of Columbus' South Side finding nothing but hurt as he unleashed the anger he felt over the father who had first abused and later abandoned his family. If anyone had told him then that he might someday own a family business that transforms lives, he would have laughed.
Yet many say Prescribed Power does just that.
Run on a shoestring budget of family finances and donations, Rocky and his wife and kids have built a stable of equipment — everything from go-carts to modified Big Wheels and Barbie Jeeps and three-wheeled trikes.
His clients have ranged in age from 3 to 82. They have developmental disabilities and physical limitations, and many are on the autism spectrum. Rocky finds out what the objectives are for each client and re-engineers and customizes a vehicle, an activity and a course to achieve those goals.
His garage is like a Santa's workshop for NASCAR drivers with disabilities. Everything in it moves, and everything there has been adapted.
He built a go-cart with a special headrest for a medically fragile client who cannot hold her head up. When a young boy came along who couldn't use his legs to push the pedals in a toy firetruck, Rocky rigged it so that when he pushed back on the seat, the truck zoomed ahead. Need to strengthen a shoulder or an arm? He'll put you on the go-cart that moves only when the driver pulls back on the tension bar with both hands. He retrofits seats for clients who must recline, and if a client is trying to learn to read, he'll put stops along the obstacle course where a sign must be read in order to continue.
"People say, 'Oh, he lets them ride go-carts. Isn't that cute?'" Rocky said. "And that makes me upset. This isn't a joy ride. The joy is a tangential benefit. I learned early on when it comes to therapy: Don't make them work. Ask them to play."
A lanky country boy who uses a healthy dose of self-deprecation to deflect any praise, he shrugs as he calls himself a mad scientist. His youngest of two daughters, 10-year-old Julia, quickly corrects him: "My dad's a genius."
In addition to Julia, there's his wife, Catherine, and 15-year-old daughter, Cori. They rent a 900-square-foot house in Zanesfield in Logan County. It has only one bathroom, Catherine said, laughing, but it has a very large garage. That matters.
Since leaving behind his jobs as both a project manager in corporate America and as a trainer for a therapeutic equine program, Rocky, 45, has thrown all his passion, energy and money for the past three years into Prescribed Power.
"Kids with disabilities are always standing on the sidelines, watching traditionally developed kids have all the fun. That's wrong," he said. "So you take a kid — he can't get out of bed, he can't climb a tree, maybe he can't even ever go to a movie. But let me strap him in a go-cart and run him through a meadow, an hour of freedom with the wind on his face, and that changes him. I have physics on my side. Engage the mind, and the body will follow."
He someday wants his own place, but for now, he sees a dozen or so clients on a property called Downsize Farm, a daytime rehabilitation center for adults in rural Champaign County. Rocky is a contract provider for the farm, so the adults help him build, repair and modify his go-carts as part of their therapy. In exchange, the owners let Rocky use the barn and land for his own business after normal hours.
Downsize Farm owner Bob Custer said he never stops being amazed at how Grimes can build or modify a go-cart or pedal car to meet any need.
"The truth is," he said, "the skills and the heart he has to make this work are a blessing for everyone who meets him."
Take Michael. Because he wants to drive, he is willing to use his iPad for communication, a goal most important to his parents. Because he doesn't get much exercise, finding a way to make Michael stronger is essential, so Rocky adjusts the tension on the steering wheel of the go-cart, and Michael must work hard at every turn. Hand-eye coordination can be a challenge, so Rocky sets up one of Michael's favorite activities along the obstacle course: bowling pins. If he is doing well, Michael gets to stop the go-cart and throws a ball to knock them down.
He laughs and claps every time.
"Take a kid to a stainless steel therapy room and it can feel like torture," Valerie Fuller said. "Michael doesn't even know that this is work or that he's learning."
She pauses, watches her son laugh as Rocky pushes him on a trike that he can't pedal on his own, but the activity still helps increase range of motion in his legs. "Or maybe he does know, I guess. That's the beauty of this."
Rocky doesn't have a college degree and is not a licensed physical therapist. Only now is he about to become a certified Medicaid provider. Still, he has the support of the developmental-disability boards in Champaign, Clark, Logan and Union counties, and each refers clients and has used discretionary dollars to help cover Prescribed Power's $48 hourly fee for some of the people Grimes has helped.
Thomas and April DeArruda and their son, Jacob, are among them.
Jacob, a 16-year-old sophomore at Marysville High School, helps Rocky customize and repair the vehicles. That has boosted his self-confidence and helped him find a selfless purpose, April said. But there's more: Rocky also is teaching Jacob to drive. His autism means he is easily frustrated, and social skills don't come easily. Learning in this low-stress, low-risk environment has been perfect for Jacob, Thomas said.
"Rocky has some kind of mojo," Thomas said. "It's special to watch him work his magic."
Jacob, after perfectly backing Rocky's personal Dodge king-cab pickup truck through a set of maneuverability cones, said wanting to learn to drive was a big step for him. Rocky — his hugs, high-fives and even his tough love on Jacob's bad days — has been the key.
"I just felt like I needed to do something more," Jacob said. "And slowly but surely, something special is going to happen here."
His mom, listening from the sidelines, wiped away tears.
When Rocky and Catherine decided to take on the business full-time, they sat their daughters down and warned of the sacrifices ahead.
"To strengthen that kid, physically or emotionally, that is what makes Rocky content," Catherine said. "The girls don't complain. They have his patience and thoughtfulness and intuitiveness. No one, not once, has said, 'No, this isn't for us.'"
Catherine, when she is not at her office job with Thomas and Marker Construction in Bellefontaine, helps however she can. Corie and Julia both leave school early one day a week to work alongside their dad.
They don't have to, Julia said.
"My dad is awesome," she said, sitting in the grass while waiting for the next client to arrive. "He's tried so hard to do all this, and it's a success." She shrugs. "This is just what we do."
As she spoke, Rocky sat in a folding chair he put atop a wooden platform he built so families would have a place to sit and watch the go-carts run through the fields. He choked up.
"When I asked myself what did I really want to do with my life, all I knew was that I wanted it to involve keeping my family close. That was important to me," he said. "And now my daughters don't come here and see the difference between them and these kids. The girls just come here and see their friends. That's pretty cool."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com