There’s no app for this: Smart teachers, good docs, clever school worker help disabled boy


by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

Posted on April 26, 2012 at 7:42 PM

Updated Friday, Apr 27 at 12:36 PM

HOUSTON—If you’re lucky, someday you’ll have as many good friends watching out for you as Evan Sebesta.

He’s five years old.  That alone is something of a miracle, because doctors expected him to die years ago from the birth defects that left him with a severely curved spine and badly deformed hands and limbs. 

But surgeries have straightened his spine and drained the ear fluid that blocked his hearing.  Now, every school day, his mother rolls his wheelchair to the doors of  R.J. Wollam Elementary School in Santa Fe, where he’s a special needs student.

“He came to us with no real communication system,” says Meghan Lippert, a speech therapist at the school.  “And we really had no idea where he was at intellectually.”

Evan could barely speak when he started school, so his teacher, Barbara Hottman, started with some basic motor skill lessons.  For example, he’s learned to press a colorful button that starts a small fan.

“Turn on your fan, Evan,” Lippert tells him. “There you go! Good job!”

His hearing problems have severely stunted his development, but Hottman discovered a remarkable alternative teaching tool—an iPad.  

The teacher received the iPad in the fall.  And when Evan took his turn with it, he became visibly excited. 

“Oh, he loved it,” Lippert says.  “I mean, he just lit up.”

He tried every way he could imagine to touch the screen, using his nose, his shoulder, even a stylus in his mouth.  Nothing worked. For a month he and his teachers tried to figure out a way he could operate the tablet computer.

One day, as Hottman and some other teachers talked about their problem, a maintenance man named Sam Herrera overheard the conversation.

“So I told her, I said, ‘Give me an hour or so. And I’ll come back with something,’” he remembers.

Herrera went to his shop and got to work.  Within a couple of hours, he says, he returned with a makeshift stylus attached to a baseball cap.  When they fastened it onto Evan’s head, he quickly learned to tap the screen and open applications.            

“He’s so willing to learn,” says Melissa Revier, one of his teachers.  “It’s amazing.”

Both his teachers and his mother were surprised with his suddenly animated behavior.  His vocabulary expanded as his teachers used the iPad to teach him new words.  One of his teachers started using her iPhone to reward him with music and discovered he rocks his arms to the beat of The Beatles and Journey’s version of “Don’t Stop Believin’.

“No words can explain how happy I am when i see him react to technology and dance,” says his mother, Phylicia Sanchez.  “And that smile.  He lights up.”        

Still, there was no way Sanchez, a single mother with two children, could afford an iPad at home.  So when his ear doctor, Harold Pine at UTMB Galveston, heard that Evan didn’t have an iPad at home, he started taking up a collection.

“You know what?” Pine says.  “A lot of my residents, a lot of the faculty here, but even nurses in the operating room, anywhere I told this story, people stopped and they said, ‘I want to help.’” 

Even his brother and sister-in-law kicked in money—so much money, in fact, he had enough to buy iPads for both Evan and his mother.

“And now, with this cool iPad and this little gimmick that they made for him, he’s basically able to show mom, ‘Hey, Mom, I’m pretty smart in here.  You just haven’t given me a chance to demonstrate it,’” Pine says. “So it’s pretty heartwarming.”

Now, as it turns out, Evan has taught a lesson to his teachers.

“Just to see how much he can do, it’s awesome,” Lippert says.  “It makes all your little trivial problems in your life, all the little stuff you deal with in your everyday work and job, it makes it all go away.”