Thinking inside the box

Students land $10,000 award for inclusive activity program

Miguel Klassen and Jarod Huhtala.

Miguel Klassen, left, and Jarod Huhtala recently won a $10,000 award from the Trico Foundation for a social enterprise they are working on to help kids with disabilities be more active. Adaptive Play Personalized Activity’s core objective is to help children and youth with motor disabilities when services and programs are not available.

It’s well-known that physical activity is an integral part of the positive development of children and youth. Unfortunately, for those with motor disabilities, accessing specialized activity programs is often difficult. This inequality inspired Miguel Klassen and Jarod Huhtala, both Bachelor of Health and Physical Education — Athletic Therapy students, to start up their Adapted Play Personalized Activity (APPA) program, which provides families with adaptive activity boxes full of toys, games, activities and crafts. The initiative went on to win a $10,000 inaugural NU Alberta Student Social Entrepreneur Award from the Trico Foundation, which is being put towards building APPA’s reputation and increasing its presence in the community.

From classmates to teammates

The catalyst for APPA was an adapted physical activity course, which Huhtala describes as a “wake-up call,” and where he and Klassen worked together on a final class project in 2020 that eventually became APPA.

“Seeing the barriers in place for kids, teens and adults with disabilities who are just trying to enjoy themselves and participate in physical activity was disappointing,” Huhtala says. “Physical activity is so important, and we want to help get around those barriers — even if it’s something as small as providing programs and activity packages.”

Being given the opportunity to use the knowledge gained through their degree to help a target population other than athletes stood out to Klassen and Huhtala, and they got to work on brainstorming ways to help individuals with disabilities, and kids and teens who don’t get enough physical activity.

Dr. David Legg, PhD, health and physical education professor and past-president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, says that his department recognizes the importance of encouraging innovation and entrepreneurial skills.

“Klassen and Huhtala clearly embraced the challenge of creating an innovation to ensure that persons experiencing disability could be more active, more often,” Legg says.

While APPA originated as a class project, the idea behind the specific initiative wasn’t handed to Klassen and Huhtala in a course outline. Both founders have personal ties to the disability community. Klassen shares that his mother has been a special education teacher for 25 years, and that the amount of extra work she puts into creating and finding new resources for her students inspired aspects of the personalized boxes. Huhtala watched his father, who has a Chiari-1 malformation disability, get turned away from doctors and specialists who couldn’t or wouldn’t help him live his whole life.

“Seeing how discouraged my dad got when he couldn’t get the treatment he needed inspired me to help other individuals with disabilities, because if we have the knowledge and the means to help someone, the extra work we put into APPA is worth it,” Huhtala says.

Turning a final project into a final product

APPA was born out of a “long and patient” methodical testing and learning process while Klassen and Huhtala were learning how to run a successful business through the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. After being introduced to director Ray DePaul in class, Klassen and Huhtala knew where to turn for extra help outside the classroom. They credit the knowledge, resources, programs and grants gained through the Institute as key for getting APPA officially up and running.

“Starting your own company can be intimidating, but the Institute is here to help every step of the way,” DePaul says. “We introduced the tools and innovative mindset, provided dozens of hours of personal mentorship, connected Klassen and Huhtala to fellow MRU founders and even provided funding to get them over early hurdles. We’re excited to continue to support them on their amazing journey.”

After lengthy plans, interviews with industry experts and the creation of pro-bono prototypes, Klassen and Huhtala used feedback to continuously improve the adaptive boxes. The first APPA prototype boxes were generic, and consisted of items like a skipping rope, a dexterity ball, a pack of resistance bands, a sport ball, play dough and a package of home activities like fun recipes and a scavenger hunt.

With the help of beta-testers, including members of the Cerebral Palsy Canada Network and the Saskatchewan Cerebral Palsy Association, Klassen and Huhtala were able to tailor the boxes to each child's interests.

“We’re just happy that we could make a difference during the time of COVID-19 lockdowns,” Klassen says.

APPA is currently working towards a full launch of products for sale. With an updated website, different types of programs for the participants to start with, and an expanding inventory of toys and activities to include in the packages, Klassen and Huhtala are excited to start shipping orders starting this September.

Aug. 17, 2021 — Katherine Sharples

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