EWU Students Make Halloween a Treat for Children with Special Needs

Estelle Rhodes beamed as she glided through the River Park Square Mall, riding on her own personal carrousel while enjoying pre-Halloween festivities with her parents. 

The 8-year-old, who is impacted by cerebral palsy and epilepsy, was treated to an “adaptive costuming” experience that transformed her wheelchair into a magical Mary Poppins’ carrousel and helped her to have a more inclusive Halloween experience.

“It couldn’t have been more perfect, says Estelle’s mom, Brianna Rhodes. “How they made it so cute and to fit on her chair so well, I’ll never understand. They nailed it!” 

A total of 60 student volunteers studying physical, occupational and speech therapy spent six weeks transforming dreams into reality for Estelle and nine other children, ages 3 to 8, who rely on wheelchairs or gate walkers for mobility. 

The students worked in teams of 4-to-6 people — with each team assigned a different child — to fashion cardboard, PVC pipe, chicken wire, duct tape, zip ties, fabric, Christmas lights and paint into whimsical costume creations, including a carousel, fire truck, race car, Elmo’s rocket, Molly of Denali dog sled, Ninja Turtle, Sonic the Hedgehog and other special character requests.

Rhodes praised the students for their hard work in creating a costume that made her daughter, who relies on adaptive technology for speech and mobility, feel beautiful and appreciated.

“As a parent it is so hard to watch your child not fit in and not be able to do what the other kids are doing,” Rhodes says. “This experience made her not only feel included, but extra special. It was also heart-warming to have these students volunteer their time to make it happen.”

Lucretia Berg, associate professor and chair of Eastern’s Department of Occupational Therapy, says the adaptive costuming project is extra meaningful to the EWU students, who get to interact with children and families while creating a memorable, inclusive Halloween experience.

Children, their families and the EWU therapy students who created their costumes pose for pictures at River Park Square where they showed off their costumes and trick-or-treated the mall’s retail shops.

Speech-language pathology students came on board this year and added an interactive twist for some of the children who are nonverbal. They provided augmentative communication devices that allowed those children to play recorded messages such “trick-or-treat” and “thank you,” while also sharing spirited phrases in keeping with their themed costumes.

For their part, the EWU students quickly became attached to the kids they served. “Once they meet the kids, and develop a bond with the kids, it becomes a passion. They all get very devoted to the kid that they are working for,” Berg says.

When one 3-year-old participant, for example, wanted to become Blake Shelton from The Voice, his team experienced a head-scratching moment. But soon they enthusiastically jumped into action, combing over The Voice’s social media and website content to gather ideas.

The EWU students are applying skills they’ve learned in the classroom to make it all work,” Berg says. They engage with families, work collaboratively with other therapists and transform inexpensive materials into adaptive costumes. Those skills in innovation will help them in the future as working professionals, Berg says, because they can teach parents how to adapt things for their children without always spending a fortune. In addition, the experience is valuable on a resume because it demonstrates students have mastered a variety of skills that are desired in therapeutic practice.

The undertaking, organizers say, wouldn’t be possible without the many individuals and businesses, including the merchants at River Park Square, who contribute supplies and other support. “Thank you to all of the people who supported us,” says Berg. “It truly does take a community.”

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