Ryan and Lana Weimer celebrate Halloween all year round: The couple from Keizer, Oregon, runs a nonprofit called Magic Wheelchair, which the two founded in early 2015 to build elaborate—and free—costumes for kids in wheelchairs.
The Weimers’ eldest son, Keaton, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) when he was 9 months old. The rare genetic disorder affects the control of muscle movement, so Keaton uses a wheelchair to get around. In 2008, the 3-year-old asked his parents if he could be a pirate for Halloween. It was then that Ryan had an idea: Instead of simply giving Keaton a tri-corner hat, why not build a pirate ship that fit around his wheelchair?
Weimer constructed the wooden ship, and “what happened when we went out trick-or-treating was really just a wonderful, wonderful experience for us,” Weimer tells Mental Floss. “There's this weird awkwardness around disability. People don't always look at the kid and say hi, or talk to him or look at him. Instead, they just pause, or stare … But with that [pirate ship] costume on [Keaton’s chair], his disability really seemed to disappear, and people saw him before they saw his wheelchair.”
Kids swarmed around Keaton as they admired his ship, and he even wound up getting his picture published on the front page of the local newspaper. An annual tradition was born: Not wanting to rest on his laurels, Weimer continued building Keaton elaborate, wheelchair-friendly Halloween costumes each year. When his younger son Bryce—who was also diagnosed with SMA—was born in 2011, he included him in the fun, too. The positive reactions they received, Weimer says, inspired him and Lana to eventually “create a nonprofit to duplicate the experience we had for other kiddos and other families.”
Magic Wheelchair—which is funded by individual and corporate donors—relies on teams of local volunteers around the country, who work together to build costumes for children in their communities. To be considered for a costume, families fill out an online application, which provides the nonprofit with a kid's biography and a description of their desired ensemble.
After receiving automatic email confirmation that Magic Wheelchair has received their materials, recipients are selected on a first-come, first-serve basis, although kids with life-threatening conditions do get priority. The rest are placed on a waitlist until a local volunteer team is able to complete their build. This process can take a few months or a few years, depending on whether there's an available team in the region.
Once kids make it off the waitlist, they meet with volunteers to discuss their vision. After that, the teams work anywhere from 100 to 500 hours, from start to finish, to construct the commissioned costume. The final product is kept under wraps so Magic Wheelchair can surprise the lucky recipient at a grand unveiling.
One of these kids was 13-year-old Cassie Hudson, a fan of comic books who hails from North Plains, Oregon. Cassie, who has spina bifida and other related health issues, first heard about Magic Wheelchair in 2015 when she noticed a flyer for the nonprofit hanging in the lobby of Shriners Hospitals for Children.
The non-profit was new at the time, so Cassie and her mother, Tess Hudson, figured they wouldn’t have the resources to provide the teen with her dream Halloween costume. But in 2016, Magic Wheelchair approached a physical therapist at Shriners and asked if they knew anyone at the hospital who would be interested in receiving one of their custom creations through a big reveal at the upcoming Rose City Comic-Con. “She was like, oh my goodness, I know exactly the kid!” Tess tells Mental Floss.
Cassie’s favorite fictional superhero is Green Arrow, who appears in comic books published by DC Comics. “I just think he’s super cool—he’s one of those superheroes that doesn’t have any powers and just wants to help people because he feels the need to,” Cassie says. She wanted Magic Wheelchair to transform her chair into his motorcycle. The costume the volunteers built lights up, makes noises, and looks so much like an actual motorcycle that at one comic-con Cassie attended, security teams initially said she couldn't bring it into the building.
Designing custom costumes for wheelchairs does pose a unique set of challenges: For one, "these kids need their chairs," Weimer says. "Our volunteer teams don't have the chair to build on, so they take measurements and pictures and build off of those."
Also, Weimer says, "you definitely have to consider what the kiddo is capable of, where [the costume] is going to be stored, and where it's going to be transported—because they're big." Costumes, which wrap around the wheelchairs, range anywhere from 2.5 feet by 4 feet to 5 feet by 8 feet and are sometimes constructed in pieces, which makes moving them around much easier. Like pieces of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, these parts fit together on the wheelchair's base and are secured in place with brackets, plastic and metal pipes, zip ties, duct tape, and specially designed metal mounts.
These obstacles don't interfere with Magic Wheelchair's goal to build what Weimer calls the "biggest, baddest costumes" imaginable for kids. "The sky's the limit," he says. "The only limitations are what's OK with the family and the kiddo." One particularly ambitious recent build was for an Atlanta resident named Anthony. "He loves cooking, and so [the volunteers] built him this chef's kitchen around his wheelchair, with a stove," Weimer says. "There was even food—a turkey, and different dishes on the stovetop."
In just a few short years, Magic Wheelchair has grown from six volunteer teams, with anywhere from one to 10 members, to around 50 teams. This Halloween season, they plan on constructing around 50 costumes—a far cry from the seven or eight ensembles the nonprofit first produced in 2015. And it's poised to become just as big and bad as the costumes it creates. “We have a complete board of directors now,” Weimer says. “We were also able to get to the point where we have hired a fundraiser and some part-time staff. This just help us to keep on growing.”
For more information on volunteering with Magic Wheelchair, or to make a donation, visit their website.