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Seeing the child: EWU students assist with wheelchair-adaptable Halloween costumes for kids

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 31, 2021

Emmett Sonnemaker, 6, took the reins of a horse for his Halloween costume to become Link, a hero in the video game The Legend of Zelda.

A fire truck is the chosen vehicle for another boy who is 5, while a 3-year-old girl has a magic carpet ride as Jasmine. They’re joined by an airplane pilot, butterfly, Sonic the Hedgehog and a range of other characters – all created by Eastern Washington University students.

Fifty-eight EWU occupational therapy and physical therapy students on the Riverpoint Campus worked in teams with 12 children and one young adult, all with disabilities, to adapt Halloween costumes around their wheelchairs. The costume recipients range in age from 2 to 23.

“Emmett was really excited when he heard that they were going to do this program again, so he wanted to be a video game character, and he wanted them to build him a horse,” said his mom, Keesha Sonnemaker.

Emmett, her youngest son who turns 7 on Friday, has had spinal muscular atrophy since birth. He enjoys playing the Zelda game with his brothers, 9 and 12.

“Our church puts on a trunk-or-treat event on Saturday night, and he’ll be excited to drive around in the parking lot to show all his friends,” she said this past week.

Emmett first got a glimpse of his steed for a final fitting Thursday night. He wore a green tunic the students created while holding a shield they made. He talked nonstop to the crew as they applied the finishing touches.

“Every day, I’m going to play in my costume,” he told them, then looked up at the horse. “Giddy up! Giddy up!”

“You guys must have done a lot of work on this.”

EWU’s adapted-wheelchair costume program ran for two years before COVID-19. This year, it partnered with Shriners Hospital for Children in Spokane, which donated funds toward the costume materials. About four kids are from Shriners, and the others are part of various Spokane pediatric therapy services. Lowe’s also donated $500 in products for making the costumes.

The EWU students applied the kids’ ideas and plenty of cardboard, piping, duct tape and other materials, said Lucretia Berg, an assistant professor and interim program director for EWU Occupational Therapy.

The groups first met in September. This EWU project fits what the students will do in their future jobs, Berg said.

“No matter if it’s PT or OT, playing is what we call the occupation of childhood, and play includes Halloween,” she said.

“A lot of the kids aren’t necessarily included in Halloween; it’s hard to include them. This is a way to look at, how do we include them so people see the kids and not the chair?”

It required problem-solving, including how to take the costume idea but still ensure the wheelchairs are functional. For some, the children need to be able to access communication devices. All in the costumed group have a disability that requires use of a wheelchair, Berg said, with conditions ranging from cerebral palsy to spina bifida.

The eldest costume recipient at 23 was included at a request after family heard about the program, and she’ll be sporting a Buzz Lightyear costume and rocket ship.

Kalix Anderson, 6, was all smiles at his fitting for Sonic the Hedgehog as five students worked around him. A giant papier-mâché head of Sonic floated above his chair, while fast feet were at his sides. Kalix, who has cerebral palsy, likes the video game character, the students said.

Student Ben Feldman, in occupational therapy studies, said the group had to problem solve around Anderson’s needs.

“He is lefthand dominant, so he uses his right arm to stabilize himself,” Feldman said.

“When we were designing this, we wanted to be cognizant of that to make sure we weren’t creating something that was going to get in his way. For the front of his costume, he extends his legs, and he kicks sometimes, so we wanted to design something that wasn’t going to get in his way.”

When working with pediatric patients, occupational and physical therapists often create adaptations and modifications, Berg said.

“We also think about inclusion, and we decided to look at Halloween as a good inclusive activity,” Berg said. “The students are using things like PVC pipe, chicken wire, cardboard, duct tape, other materials and putting that together to create costumes.

“It’s things they would do because we use PVC pipe a lot as pediatric clinicians to help kids with whatever they need. It’s just a way for the students to do something fun.”

The job of an occupational therapist is to help patients be as independent as possible in daily life, in the community and at school, said Katy Phillips, Shriners rehabilitation service manager and an occupational therapist.

She often speaks to the EWU students and attended an early costume-planning session when the young children told students what they wanted to be for Halloween.

“They met just to get ideas from the kids on what they wanted to dress up like, which was pretty fun,” Phillips said. “The wheelchair becomes part of the costumes.

“We’re always working on community involvement and inclusion. This is a way to include kids who might be in a wheelchair or walker to be part of Halloween.”

The groups also scheduled a parade 11 a.m.-noon Saturday on the first floor of Riverpark Square, where the children could trick-or-treat at participating stores. Between the costumed crowd and EWU students, Berg couldn’t pick which one was more excited.

“One of the kids wanted his chair to be a fire truck, so one of the students happens to be a firefighter, and he’s bringing two of his buddies,” she said. “They’re all dressing up in firefighter gear, and they got this little guy a fireman’s hat. They’re all so excited.

“All the costumes turned out quite clever.”

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