Nine-year-old Andrew Lumm is able to walk today thanks to the physical therapy he received as an infant.

Andrew was born with spina bifida, a disabling birth defect of the spine. Just weeks after his birth he began physical therapy with a pediatric specialist who knew how to strengthen his muscles, loosen the tight joints in his little legs and promote his development.

This early intervention prepared Andrew to walk and laid the foundation for his future, said his mother, Rose Mary Lumm. She also knows she was fortunate to find the specialized physical therapy her son needed.

Like many parts of the country, Central Florida has a shortage of physical therapists specially trained to work with children. Families sometimes have to wait a month or more to start services for a child with special needs.

Now the University of Central Florida is partnering with a leading provider of physical therapy services in the region, UCP of Central Florida, to address this shortage.

Orlando-based ABC Fine Wine & Spirits has donated seed money to launch the UCF-UCP Pediatric Physical Therapy Initiative, a five-year program designed to expand the availability of pediatric physical therapy services in Central Florida.

The partnership will enable UCF to extend its expertise in pediatric physical therapy to UCP of Central Florida, a charter school with seven regional campuses. UCP of Central Florida offers educational programs to children with and without disabilities, as well as therapy programs for children with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down syndrome, autism, developmental delays and other disabilities.

At the heart of the initiative is Jennifer Tucker, a member of the UCF’s physical therapy faculty and currently the only doctorally trained, board-certified pediatric clinical specialist in Central Florida, said Patrick Pabian, director of UCF’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program. She earned her specialty certification from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.

Tucker will work hand in hand with Irma Rosa, the senior director of therapy practices at UCP. Rosa has more than 25 years of experience as a physical therapist and is certified by the Neuro-Developmental Treatment Association.

“The expertise of our therapists and real-life outcomes allow an incredible foundation for this collaborative effort,” said Ilene Wilkins, UCP’s chief executive officer.

For the next five academic years, Tucker will spend 10 hours a week working at UCP’s campuses throughout Central Florida. Two UCF physical therapy graduate assistants will accompany Tucker and work alongside Rosa and UCP’s staff to promote professional development, assess community needs and develop outreach events.

“We’ve selected two wonderful D.P.T. students, Cortney Miller and Krissy Kalameris, as our first graduate assistants,” Tucker said. “Right now we’re laying the foundation for the initiative.”

Among the first goals of the program: a specialty clinic in January at UCP’s Bailes Campus, located in the Central Florida Research Park in Orlando. The specialty clinic will be selected based on a community survey.

Tucker and her students also plan to develop research projects with UCP of Central Florida.

“One area we’d like to study is parent education,” Tucker explained. “For example, we want to determine the most effective strategies to educate parents on topics such as implementing home exercise programs, promoting physical development in natural environments and navigating the complexities of raising a child with disabilities.”

The UCF-UCP collaboration could eventually lead to the development of an American Physical Therapy Association-credentialed Clinical Residency Program at the Bailes Campus, said UCF’s Pabian. The program would offer licensed physical therapists the advanced training needed to become a board-certified pediatric clinical specialist like Tucker.

“UCP’s infrastructure and UCF’s clinical education and research focus could easily make this an achievable endeavor,” Pabian said.

Currently, there are only 10 such programs in the nation and none of them are in Florida.

Andrew’s mother, Rose Mary Lumm, said a program that would give more parents access to the specialists who can change children’s lives would be welcomed.

“Andrew has had simply phenomenal physical therapists,” she said. “Many of the successes he enjoys today are a direct result of early intervention.”