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UI MBA Students Help with Plan to Provide Blind Chicago Kids with GPS Devices

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A group of University of Iowa students are helping a Chicago nonprofit organization with an ambitious plan to provide GPS-enabled cell phones to every blind and visually impaired child in Illinois.

The program is an initiative of the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, and its goal is to help children navigate their neighborhoods on their own and become more independent.

The UI team, five MBA students in the Tippie College of Business, is working with the Lighthouse to develop a pilot project to outfit as many as 1,000 children in the Chicago area with GPS devices. They’re working this semester to test devices, develop a list of corporations and organizations that can be solicited for contributions and funding, and making initial contacts with some of them.

The students are also developing a brand for the project, including a name and image. Although the students will spend only one semester on the initiative, they see their job as getting it off to a good start.

“There’s an overwhelming amount of tasks, and we’re trying to organize it and set some priorities for them,” said team member Tara From, a first-year MBA student. “That’s the biggest difference we think we can make in such a short time.”

The students are working through one of eight consulting teams in the Tippie Business Solutions Center, a class in which all Tippie MBA students participate during the spring semester of their first year. The teams work with real clients, providing advice that addresses real business challenges for a fee.

Seven other teams are working this spring on projects with other business clients.

The team came together with the Lighthouse through Business Solutions Center director Richard Boulger, a former partner of Accenture consulting in Chicago. Boulger has a friend who is blind and it was through him that he was connected to the Lighthouse.

The students started working on the GPS-cell phone project in January. Tom Perski, the director of rehabilitation services for the Lighthouse, said helping blind and visually impaired children become independent pays off in the long run.

“The more independence they have as children, the more educational and career opportunities they’ll have later in life,” he said.

Children who are part of the project will receive for free a GPS-enabled device with service, as well as training on how to use it. If the pilot is successful, Perski said the Lighthouse will expand it to a larger group of Illinois children.

He said the organization’s goal is to provide every blind or visually impaired child in Illinois with a device.

The students have met several times with Perski and other members of the Lighthouse to develop strategies for increasing awareness of the initiative with potential donors. They’ve researched possible private and government funding sources and determined what kind of GPS device would work best, testing them by walking around Iowa City.

They will present their final report to the Chicago Lighthouse’s board on April 30.

“The Tippie students have been fantastic to work with,” Perski said. “We’ve had a good exchange of ideas and they have great presentation skills. They’ve also worked hard to understand the challenges faced by visually impaired and blind people so they can make the most informed recommendation possible.”

“It’s been so exciting working on this project, knowing that our work will help to give opportunities to blind and visually impaired children,” said Jeremie Yoder, the Tippie team leader. “This is really a revolutionary idea and it’s exciting to help it get off the ground.”

Other members of the Tippie team include Robert Levine, Devin Reston and Sham Prasad.

Founded in 1906, The Chicago Lighthouse is widely regarded as one of America's most comprehensive social service agencies assisting people who are blind or visually impaired in leading richer, more independent lives. Among its innovative programs are a school serving children with multi-disabilities; America's oldest and most prominent low vision clinic; one of the nation's few remaining factories, employing blind workers, which produces clocks for worldwide distribution; a legal clinic; and a state of the art store specially designed for the needs of shoppers with visual impairments.


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