With unsteady hands weakened by a debilitating disease, Cheslyn Simpson navigated the joystick that's brought the 23-year-old Plaquemine woman a sense of freedom she's rarely experienced over the past decade.

The beach-accessible wheelchair on which she spun and glided Tuesday afternoon — designed and built by an enterprising group of LSU students — means she'll be able for the first time to traverse the sand of Perdido Key, Florida, on the family’s annual vacation.

She can play music, honk her horn, and go back and forth on different surfaces without needing to be carried in the beach cart the family currently uses on such vacations.

"It’s a blessing, it’s a form of independence for her, freedom for her, and it just brings a smile to my face,” Simpson’s father, Chester Simpson said.


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A group of nine LSU mechanical and electrical engineering students presented the wheelchair to the Simpson family on Tuesday, a culmination of eight months work for the seniors.

The team delivered on a project the previous year’s seniors had started, but customized the colors and features of the device specifically for Simpson, who was nominated as the recipient through her speech therapy appointments at LSU.

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From left, Cheslyn Simpson, father Chester Simpson, students Grace Hebert, Kevin Durr and student team leader Daniel Lucas. LSU engineering students present Cheslyn Simpson with a beach-accessible wheelchair they created Tuesday April 30, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. A group of LSU engineering students has created a beach-accessible wheelchair for, Cheslyn Simpson, a Plaquemine woman in her early 20s who has a neuro-muscular disorder. The family takes holidays at the beach a lot so the family will be able to get her down to the sand and water a lot easier now.

At the beginning of their senior year, the Capstone Design class was given a list of projects to volunteer for, including Cheslyn’s wheelchair. From there, they worked with donated materials and funding to put together the final product.

It has plenty of bells and whistles. The motorized wheelchair comes equipped with a Bluetooth soundbar, a cooler, and storage underneath the seat.

“One of the reasons this project was first on my list was because I wanted to first-hand build something for a specific someone, not just a factory or a project for a teacher," said student Anthony Phan.

 “It was a great feeling seeing her smile," he added. "Every time she sees us or sees the wheelchair she always has this huge smile on her face.”

Simpson was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia when she was six years old, according to her father, and began losing her ability to walk around age 13. She has trouble with her speech and mobility, and the disease affects her heart.

Chester Simpson described the chair as "just a blessing. She can go out when she wants. This gives her a lot of freedom, I can’t express that enough.”

The student group went to lunch with the Simpson family Tuesday before the official chair handoff at the LSU campus, with Chester Simpson joking that his family has expanded since this project began.

“This project was a lot of fun, and the family’s fantastic,” student Daniel Lucas said. “It’s like you meet them and just immediately want to give them 110%, and I think everybody did on this.”


Follow Emma Kennedy on Twitter, @byemmakennedy.