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'Crazy' weekend for these Whitehall Yearling 'parents'

New dolls let high schoolers in Child Development course experience the highs and lows of parenthood

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DEBORAH M. DUNLAP/THISWEEKNEWS
Whitehall-Yearling High School students (from left) freshman Tiana Koulbout and sophomores Kenedi Neale and Alexis Kefauver coo over three "newborns" as part of their Child Development class. The school now owns 10 of the programmable dolls, which grunt and cry when they need to be fed, burped, cleaned or soothed.

When Jacob Dilbeck, a junior at Whitehall-Yearling High School, took a programmable baby doll home earlier this year as part of his Child Development class project, he knew he had his work cut out for him.

But he got a little more than he bargained for that weekend.

"That first night, I won't ever forget," he said with a laugh.

After coming home early from tennis practice in order to care for the "baby," he fed it when it cried, burped it, changed its diaper and rocked it to sleep.

He wasn't prepared, though, for the five times throughout the night he was woken by cries, which required more feeding, more burping and more soothing.

Dilbeck acknowledged he missed out on a lot of weekend events, including a Saturday tennis practice and a party with friends. He even had to pay his little sister to watch the "baby" while he went outside to shovel after a late-spring snowfall.

The project was optional in Sandy Kemerer's class. Kemerer teaches Family and Consumer Science at Whitehall-Yearling and has been handing "babies" over to teens for years. But this is the first year the school has actually owned the dolls -- and they've all been operable. Thanks to an unexpected opportunity through the Godman Guild Association, Whitehall was able to purchase the nearly new programmable babies at a deep discount.

So after a two-year hiatus, the program was back in action again this year.

"The students are very excited about the prospect at first," Kemerer said. "They think that it's going to be fun and they're going to have a great time.

"Then they typically come back Monday with a 'deer-in-the-headlights' look on their faces. They look exhausted."

Freshman Tiana Koulbout agreed.

"It was crazy," she said, adding she tried to take the doll to a friend's house and to the mall, but it cried so much that she abandoned both outings.

"Everyone would be looking at me, and that would be embarrassing to me," she said.

Kemerer's "Baby Think-It-Over" dolls are designed to be realistic. They are soft to the touch, come in both genders and a number of different ethnicities, have flexible necks that must be supported, and cry and grunt when they are not fed, burped, cleaned or coddled.

Each doll has 15 different schedules that can be programmed by the class instructor. Kemerer uses a 48-hour period to test her students' care-giving skills. Everything is recorded -- from how long the baby cried to how often it was fed and changed. If a baby is left to fend for itself, its cries only get louder and longer.

Sophomores Kenedi Neale and Alexis Kefauver decided to co-parent. Neale said she was never embarrassed to have the baby out with her, but added it was hard work.

"It wanted fed, it wanted burped and it wanted changed. Then, like 20 minutes later, it wanted fed again," she said. "I told my mom, 'I hope you never expect grandchildren.' "

Kemerer said although she looks at each baby's data when it comes back to school after the weekend spent at home with students, she does not grade based on how the doll was cared for. Instead, she has students write an essay about what they learned, which she said is far more important than simply how well the baby was tended to.

Junior Mia Parks said she learned a hard lesson about what it's like to be a teen mom. While at a family party at a roller-skating rink, she was asked to leave the floor while comforting her baby. When she explained it wasn't real, she was asked to go sit down anyway.

"So I finally just took off my skates and held the baby," she said. "It really made me feel left out."

Kemerer said it's a real-life lesson that no egg or bag of flour could ever provide.

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