Trick-or-treating while in a wheelchair wasn’t easy last year for 5-year-old Penny Pedersen, who had to wait on the sidewalk for her siblings to bring her candy, then try to catch up with friends in her Sandy, Utah, neighborhood.
“Just maneuvering the wheelchair and trying to figure out how to incorporate it into a costume was difficult,” says the preschooler’s mom, Ashley Pedersen, 34, a mother of three. “And a lot of times, Penny felt as though as she was watching the fun from the sidelines.”
This year, things are different, thanks to staffers and volunteers at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Salt Lake City, who held a Halloween costume clinic last week for 21 young patients who can’t walk and need wheelchairs.
At the daylong event, wheelchairs were transformed into everything from the Batmobile to a popcorn machine, with costumes to match, courtesy of donations from the public and Spirit of Halloween’s Spirit of Children charity.
“It’s one of the most rewarding things we’ve done all year,” Matt Lowell, 44, director of the hospital’s seating and mobility program, tells PEOPLE. “Every kid wants to go trick-or-treating just like their friends, but with a wheelchair to deal with, having a fun Halloween isn’t always easy.”
Lowell came up with the idea for the Halloween clinic last year when he heard from several parents that it was difficult to create costumes for their children that included a wheelchair.
“Wheelchairs can be expensive pieces of equipment, ranging from $5,000 to more than $40,000,” he says, “and families found it intimidating and complicated to attach things that might work with their child’s costume. So I decided to get a team together and see if we could change that.”
After designing six wheelchair costumes last year, Lowell divided volunteers into construction and art teams last week to make 21 patients’ dream costumes a reality.
Using PVC pipe, hula hoops and cardboard as frames, they created a space shuttle (with the child as an astronaut), a safari Jeep, a Monsters, Inc. door, a cityscape for Superman, a taco truck and a construction backhoe, among others.
Penny decided that she wanted to dress up this year as Vanellope von Schweetz (and drive a “Candy Kart”) from Wreck-It Ralph.
“She loves the movie and was thrilled to see her costume and her car come together,” her mother tells PEOPLE. “She’ll wear it to a bunch of Halloween parties, plus trick-or-treating, and I’m thinking it will help other kids gravitate to her. The Shriners volunteers even gave us some supplies to keep ‘souping’ up her costume if we want to. Thanks to them, it’s going to be one amazing Halloween for Penny.”
For Larry Christensen, who has three sons with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, watching 12-year-old Rylik’s reaction to his safari fire rescue truck costume was a memorable moment.
Seven months ago, Rylik became the only one of his children thus far to need a wheelchair full-time, “and to be honest, we were wondering how Halloween was going to work out,” Christensen tells PEOPLE.
“But they did such an amazing job with his costume, that now the other kids are wanting one and asking, ‘When do I get to decorate my wheelchair?’ I’ve never seen so many smiles as I did at Shriners when they were fixing up those wheelchairs,” he says.
For Landon DeGarmo, an emergency room nurse at another Utah hospital who volunteered to help build frames, working for a day in the costume clinic left him feeling hopeful and inspired.
“These kids are so brave — they’ve been through a lot in their young lives,” he tells PEOPLE, “and seeing them so excited, knowing they’d have fun like other kids who don’t have the same difficulties, was a wonderful feeling. Kids just want to be kids. What kid doesn’t want a cool costume when they go out trick-or-treating?”
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Lowell, who will see the children again when they return to participate in a parade at the hospital on Halloween, says he now knows how will be spending every Halloween for the rest of his life.
“We want everyone to see the kid in the costume, not just the kid in the wheelchair,” he says. “This time of year should be magical for everyone.”