Houston’s First member Blake Palmer’s childhood fascination for constructing model airplanes laid the groundwork for a “dream” second career. But more than that, God opened Blake’s eyes to the unique — and unexpected — way he could use his talents to be a Differencemaker in the lives of special needs children at Houston’s First and around the country.
After more than 15 years in the corporate world, a layoff prompted Blake to begin contemplating life's priorities. “About the same time, I lost my job, turned 40 and got saved,” he said. “I began to see God at work making things happen.”
Doors opened to revisit his love for tinkering with airplanes. He started to enroll in school
to become an airplane mechanic, but through divine providence and volunteering at Galveston’s Lone Star Flight Museum, Blake made a connection that allowed him to work and apprentice as an airplane mechanic at a drilling company.
After being laid off in 2009, the next 15 jobless months would be a challenge for both Blake and his wife, Gretchen, who was carrying the family finances. “We knew God had taken care of us before,” said Blake.
In answer to a Craigslist ad, Blake sent his resume to an antique airplane restoration shop in Cypress. He showed up the following Monday to talk with the owner, and they hit it off. Six years later, he still sings the praises of his workplace. “Restoring antique aircraft is the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. He had already learned a bit about fabricating in his prior job, a valuable skill in the restoration business, and one God would also use in ministry going forward.
Two years ago, a classmate in The Bridge Life Bible Study — and Blake’s Facebook friend — posted a video from Go Baby Go, an organization that provides mobility to kids who have trouble moving around on their own. The video showed toy ride-on cars that had been modified to allow disabled kids to use them. “When I saw the video, I knew it was something I had to do,” said Blake. “This was something I was supposed to do.”
Blake made screenshots of the videos and started researching. Though Blake and Gretchen have no children and no experience working with children, they are the focus of his ministry. His first car was completed in the summer of 2014 and was given to a young boy at Houston’s First with cerebral palsy. “I saw his face light up,” said Blake. “There’s nothing I’ve experienced or anything I could spend money on in this world that would mean as much as that.”
His newfound ministry manifested in building cars “God-style.” Most of the adapted cars Blake saw were quickly put together with little attention given to detail. “My philosophy is the cars be well-built,” he said. “We even personalize them with the child’s name on Texas license plates.” A Houston’s First member sewed custom seat covers for one vehicle. “It meant so much to the child’s mom,” said Blake, “that some lady she didn’t even know would take the time.”
He ordered six different types of switches to determine which worked best to power the cars. After interviewing robotics specialists, doing online research, and tinkering with microprocessors, Blake invented the Fluid Motion Device, a speed control to accelerate and slow the vehicle to a stop without jerking the child, as is the norm with standard motorized riding toys.
Blake sent the prototype to volunteer researchers at the East Tennessee Technology Center, affiliated with Go Baby Go, and the Fluid Motion Device set them abuzz with excitement. “They told me my device duplicated the motion of a $20,000 powered wheelchair — and I made it for under $100,” he said.
Perhaps most significant about the custom cars is that they are retrofitted to allow each child to drive his or her own vehicle regardless of disability. Some cars also promote rehabilitation by exercising little-used limbs. “They’re fun and therapeutic,” said Blake. A child who can only move her head received a car that requires her to hold up her head in order to power the car.
Price Stedham, a seven-year-old Houston’s First member with undiagnosed developmental delays (right, with parents Kristen & Nathan), was given a “stand-up” vehicle that would encourage him to use his legs. “I adapted a rock climbing harness on it so Price wouldn’t fall down,” said Blake.
His First Wheels Special Needs Mobility Ministry serves not only children at Houston’s First, but also those in the Houston area and throughout the United States.
A young mother from Chicago saw the vehicles on the Thru the Roof Special Needs Ministry Facebook page and contacted ministry founder Denise Briley, the former director, now the ministry’s Family Liaison. Denise made the connection between Blake and the woman’s one-year-old with spina bifida, who received a tiny Bumbo wheelchair last year. Blake retrofitted a Bumbo Floor Seat with the base of a Dareway Scooter, using the platform as a wheelchair base and adding a long handle that allowed the baby’s mom to push her around the house and into tight spaces as well as outdoors.
“Blake has become the hands and feet for these kids,” said Denise. “He is giving families their dream. By using the incredible gifts God has given him, Blake is giving kids with special needs the mobility that every parent wants their child to have. Now they can keep up with their brothers and sisters.”
With spare money from his family budget and a few generous donors, First Wheels has gifted a total of five vehicles to special needs children. Blake says the groundwork has been laid for the ministry now that he has learned how things are done and believes this is just the beginning of First Wheels’ ministry of making children with special needs mobile.
“I don’t know where it’s going to lead,” said Blake. “For me, it’s all about being obedient to do what God wanted me to do. Everything I ever learned in my life has come together for this.”
The Thru the Roof Special Needs Ministry at the Loop Campus loves, cares for, and welcomes children and adults with special needs into the church fellowship and community. Life Bible Studies, buddies for children, and a well-trained staff of volunteers make Sundays the best day of the week for guests and members alike. For more information on Thru the Roof, contact Interim Director Otis.Hall@HoustonsFirst.org.