Candice Hennig, 8, works with therapist Melissa Clifford and her mother, Paula, during a physical therapy session at New Berlin Therapies in Elkhorn. Candice was the inspiration for a set of stairs mimicking steps on a school bus Paula began approximately a year ago.

By Kellen Olshefski

Staff Writer

An area mother’s inspiration led to the installation of a new therapeutic staircase by several area contributors at Elkhorn’s New Berlin Therapies.

Stairs have been used for therapeutic purposes at New Berlin Therapies in the past with children, however, the new set has one side that mimics the size steps a school bus has.

Paula Hennig, whose daughter Candice, 8, has cerebral palsy, saw the need for a new set of stairs after her daughter received a motorized wheelchair and the school district was going to move her to the back of the bus, strapped down in the wheelchair.

“It kind of made me feel like that’s another block, obstacle that she has to overcome to have that social sameness with her peers and friends,” she said. “She didn’t like it because her friends were all in the front of the bus.”

The single mother of five explained, feeling like she didn’t know how to solve the problem, she thought about the stairs. She said if they already had a set of normal stairs, why couldn’t somebody build a set of bus stairs?

Hennig said she began by talking to Melissa Clifford of New Berlin Therapies about getting a set of stairs, though unfortunately, funding wasn’t available.

From there, Hennig approached Scott Gorman, the previous manager at Home Depot in Lake Geneva, who after listening to Hennig’s explanation, helped her to get her project underway.

Gorman and the Lake Geneva Home Depot donated the majority of the materials needed to build the new staircase in use at New Berlin Therapies today.

As for constructing the staircase, Hennig reached out to David Smage, a member of her church community and owner of Smage Construction, LLC.

Hennig praised Smage for his contribution of countless hours of work he put into the project alongside harvesting in the fall, spring planting, and a mission trip to Costa Rica.

“Whenever he could, he was here,” she said. “I am so thankful for this man who masterfully made the materials turn into a beautifully done staircase.”

Smage built the staircase to closely match measurements from the ground to the first step on a bus and the size of each step, adding a set of regular stairs down the other side, giving it a dual purpose.

She also expressed gratitude towards Smage’s wife and son for their understanding while David was away from home working on the projects, and Bob Swatek of RC Welding, who completed the addition of a safety rail at the top of the steps.

Hennig explained the staircases used for therapy are beneficial to children as there are still many places that are not handicapped accessible. She also said children have such varying needs when it comes to physical therapy and progress at different rates.

As an example, Hennig cited Thomas Anderson, who also goes to therapy at New Berlin Therapies. She explained Anderson was in an auto accident with his family, leaving him in need of physical therapy to get him back to where he was before the accident.

Hennig explained often times a lot of people who don’t have special needs kids don’t understand.

“It’s not because they’re ignorant or snobby, it’s just because they don’t know what that day-to-day life is like,” she said.

According to Hennig, Candice just wants to be like everybody else and she has the motivation and will that says “I want to be just like my friends.”

“She wants to be independent, she wants to climb the stairs,” she said.

According to Hennig, physical therapy for children is much like a set of games that teach the body over and over again what it should be doing.

For example, she explained in strengthening her daughter’s legs, therapists will have her stand up, sit down, stand up and hold it, and sit down again.

“All the time while they’re doing that, they’re playing a game so it’s not like adult therapy,” she said.

“They do all these fun things to get the kids to do what they want so it doesn’t seem like work…it just seems like play.”

Hennig, who said her daughter has been in physical therapy since her birth, has made great progress over the years, meeting goal after goal towards greater physical capabilities.

Using the stairs will help children like Candice build the strength and muscle memory to be able to climb up onto a bus, rather than have to ride in the back, strapped down in a wheelchair, according to Hennig.

More specifically, Hennig also said the stairs will aid in getting Anderson back to climbing stairs as he did before the accident and helping to progress her daughter Candice and fellow therapy-mate Josh Leake in getting to a point they can climb stairs comfortably.

The stairs built by David Smages of Smages Construction, LLC, and Bob Swatek of RC Welding are meant to help children in physical therapy rebuild the strength needed to climb the stairs on a school bus.






  1. Melissa Piquette says:

    Super cool story!!! And what a beautiful staircase! Such a fabulous idea!

  2. Thanks for writing this article. I know Paula and can attest to the fact that she is a great advocate not only for her children but for others with similar issues.

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