So what if Jennifer Pelky was only 10-years-old? It was a two-person job and nothing could stop her from putting together that entertainment center with her dad.
“I was determined to help him. Basically, I read the instructions and told him what to do,” Pelky says years later while sitting on a cement block in the crash test area at Toyota Technical Center (TTC) in Ann Arbor. “That was my first entry into engineering. I loved doing it.”
Pelky’s father, Jim Szymanski, wasn’t a great communicator, but the two bonded through cars. When she was a child, he would take her to classic car parades. In a way, that’s where he showed his love.
“He always impressed me when we went to classic car parades,” Pelky says. “I could point to one of the cars driving down the road and say, ‘Dad what year is that ‘Vette?’ He could say, ‘Oh it’s a ‘63.’ Growing up we had a lot of conversations about the classic muscle cars like Mustangs and Camaros and Corvettes.”
Fast forward to 2011. Pelky has graduated from the University of Michigan and is a few years into her job at TTC. She also happens to be pregnant with her first child. She goes to Babies ‘R’ Us to buy a child car seat.
But there are issues. She can’t figure out how to properly install the seat. Eventually, after some struggle and consultation with a coworker, she figures it out.
Think about that for a second.
Pelky – who has a passion for cars, a degree from one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the nation and a job as an engineer for one of the top automakers in the world – had trouble figuring out how to install a normal car seat.
So what chance does the average parent have?
Not much. According to Buckle up for Life, Toyota’s partnership with the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital that helps educate families about child safety seats, three out of four child car seats are not properly installed.
That’s the issue Pelky is trying to correct.
|Daddy-Daughter Bond -- Jennifer Pelky and her father, Jim Szymanski bonded over cars when she was a girl.
That confirmed to her that interior safety was where she wanted to work.
“When you get your vehicle, there’s an anchor the child seat attaches to,” she explains. “I’m responsible for making sure that anchor meets federal regulations.”
After struggling to install that first seat, Pelky wanted to help other mothers in similar situations. So she became a certified child passenger safety technician in 2012. Since then she has worked with Safe Kids Huron Valley to take shifts at local retailers, fire stations and community events to help parents choose the right seat and install it in their vehicles.
In 2014, she joined with Buckle up for Life, acting as a Toyota spokesperson doing media interviews and trying to spread the word on the importance of the issue.
As for that three of four statistic: “Success to me is getting that to zero.”
It’s a noble goal. But really, Pelky just wants is to make a difference in the lives of parents and their children. Nobody gets praise for preventing tragedies that no one knew would happen. But that’s what she’s doing now with Buckle up for Life.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that in 2012, 1,168 children under 14 died in traffic accidents. Another 169,000 were injured. But those numbers are likely going down. In 2013, total traffic fatalities hit historic lows, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
And while factors like safety technology play a major role, so does educating parents on how to properly transport their children.
Pelky is making a difference.
“It warms my heart to know I made someone else’s child safer,” she says. “As a parent I value the safety of my children above everything else and I see a lot of parents who don’t know they’re doing it wrong, but they’re making an effort and that is great.”
|Pay it Forward -- Now a mother of two, Pelky is determined to help mothers install carseats correctly.
If you, like Pelky, grew up around the Great Lakes, you know that Cedar Point was an annual rite of passage.
The Ohio theme park is a roller-coaster lover’s dream, and it hosts thousands of school trips each year.
Pelky was one of the kids on those class trips during her senior year of high school.
“There was a ride there called the Ripcord,” she remembers. “Basically they put you in a harness, attach you to a cable, and hoist you up, Superman style, to some ungodly height before letting you free fall back to the ground. I was the kid who went home and busted out my physics formulas to try to figure out how fast we were going when we got to the bottom.”
So Pelky was a math nerd. What does that have to do with child safety seats?
On the surface, maybe not much. But take that time she spent in her room calculating the physics of the ride. And take that time she spent as a child, helping her dad assemble that entertainment center and walking by his side at car shows. And then take that time she spent in a parking lot, frustrated and angry because she couldn’t get her first child safety seat to fit in her Mustang.
Add those up and they amount to lives saved.
“I love the position I’m in,” Pelky says. “I really can make a difference in other people’s lives. I can go out in the field to a fitting station, and I can show people how to fix the problem they have with their car seats. And I know that when they leave, they’re safer than when they came in. That, to me, is huge.”
By Dan Nied