Challenges are a part of life. Finding the solutions to those challenges is how we often find our inspiration. That is certainly true when it comes to Lyla Christie’s story.

Three years ago, Lyla was a healthy 10-year-old, until she was diagnosed with a non-cancerous but aggressive tumor in her neck. During surgery, she experienced an injury to her spinal cord that caused her to be paralyzed from the neck down.

As she began to heal, they started trying to figure out what would be necessary to bring Lyla home, and one of the big things was an electronic wheelchair she could control with her mouth. “Driving, it took a lot to get used to,” she said. “It kind of feels like I actually do have a body again…I don’t feel so trapped…It just felt like a lot of freedom and amazing overall. It just gave me an extra hope of living my life the way I wanted to.”

She returned to school and her confidence began to grow. As she entered middle school, she was inspired by her older brother to join the robotics team. Lyla and her parents were worried there wouldn’t be a place for her, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The team worked to make sure there was a game controller that was legal for Lyla (and all FIRST students) to use to drive the robot.

“I just felt really happy because it was something new, it was really fun to see something not on the screen like moving for once, and something I could control. I don’t need anybody to help me to do that,” she said.

A line was added to the rulebook to allow for the controller modification to be used in competition, allowing Lyla to drive the robot using her mouth. “That’s what robotics is all about, taking a challenge and finding a solution for it,” said Jennifer Christie, Lyla’s mom.

The controller that was developed allows the driver to use their mouth, instead of their hands, to control the robot. “That gave her new energy,” said Lyla’s dad, Ryan Christie, “I remember she was like okay this is fun, I can do stuff with robotics.”

Lyla’s situation was the drive behind the rule change, but they are hoping it opens the door to robotics for many others, “We are literally rewriting the rules because of the impact that Lyla is having on this program and on FIRST overall and I really hope there is somebody else out there who can see what Lyla does and understand that they can participate too, there is nothing holding them back,” said Kirk Findlay, the Gremlins coach.

Learning to drive the robot with her mouth was breakthrough, but it was just the start for Lyla. It made her realize there were many other things she could do, like painting, “Now I’m doing way more than just robotics, I’m doing activities that I never thought I would ever do,” said Lyla. “Especially in the hospital, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I used to do, and it was really cool to figure out that I can do stuff, that I just needed to put in some extra work to find out a new way to do it.”

The extra work paid off for Lyla and the Gremlins. She is now one of the most experienced and trusted drivers on the team and see continues to inspire everyone around her.

To Lyla, robotics means partnership, friends and being able to challenge yourself while also having fun.

It could be said that robotics changed Lyla’s life, but it’s clear that Lyla’s life changed the course of FIRST robotics and opened the possibility for many other students who may not have considered participating before.

Linda Hilbert, executive director of environmental quality and sustainability for Consumers Energy and Chelsea Robotics mentor, said the strength and perseverance Lyla, her teammates and her parents showed is what robotics is all about, “That’s the beauty of robotics. It’s all about problem solving, teamwork and supporting each other in a way that makes everyone stronger and better as a whole,” she said.

Consumers Energy is proud to cheer on teams like the Chelsea Gremlins. Lyla and her team continue to inspire us. They are proof with a dream and a few creative minds, anything is possible. To learn more about Lyla and the Chelsea Gremlins and see Lyla in action, check out this video:

Learn more about how we’re supporting STEM and Robotics.