SALT LAKE CITY — Kayden Matagi certainly doesn't experience Halloween like his peers, but just as she straps the 6-year-old to her back to go hiking, his mother is determined to make it happen.
For years, Shellise Matagi has spent long hours cutting and painting cardboard and poster paper to integrate Kayden's wheelchair into a fun costume so that everyone will see that "he can do everything that other kids can do," the adoring mother said.
"I want him to experience Halloween like a normal kid," Shellise Matagi said.
And this year, she, gratefully, has some help.
Volunteers and employees with the Wheelchair Seating and Positioning Department at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Salt Lake City were busy Wednesday fitting pipes and putting together various elements to make dreams come true this Halloween for kids in wheelchairs.
"We want to let them be kids," said Matt Lowell, a physical therapist and head of the wheelchair department at Shriners. "You're supposed to see the kid and not the chair and this is a great time for them to show off their chair."
The Shriners' Wheelchair Costume Clinic outfitted 20 kids who otherwise spend their lives in their wheelchairs — because Halloween shouldn't be "just another day" for them, Lowell said. He expanded the program this year to incorporate more children because last year's experience was so heartwarming for everyone involved.
Parents, Lowell said, have reported that instead of their children being left behind, they became the center of attention with their interesting and elaborate costumes.
"Shriners wants to take care of children," he said. "If we see a need, we try to meet it."
Julie Cheever, of Salt Lake City, said she doesn't have the time or the resources as a single mom, let alone the creativity, to put together a costume for her 3-year-old, Drew, who was born with spina bifida and is in a wheelchair.
"Doctors told me he would never walk, but I always knew it was possible," she said. "It depends on what the child wants to do. … He has goals. He wants to play football like his older brother."
Drew's choice was inevitably a superhero — Spider-Man, to be exact. And he wanted some sort of webbing on his wheelchair, which volunteer Landon DeGarmo helped to create.
"I love working with kids, but these are just special kids, if you will," DeGarmo said. "It's incredible what they can do, making it look effortless as they do it."
The work, he said, is satisfying.
"I get more from the kids than they ever get from me," DeGarmo noted. "It's well worth the time."
Many parents who accompany their kids to the not-for-profit orthopedic specialty hospital for various medical care and therapy services have expressed how much of a challenge it is to find costumes that are appropriate for children in wheelchairs.
"So many years, they just put on a costume and sit in their chair," said Millie Killpack, of Lehi, who's 9-year-old son, David, is going as “Star Wars” character Chewbacca, driving a huge Millennium Falcon.
Foam, cardboard and PVC pipe make up the structure of the spacecraft, which sits nicely atop the self-powered wheelchair and is removable so David can get through doors if he has to. David said he's learned to drive "pretty fast — especially going up ramps and stuff."
"My legs don't work as well as others' do," David said. He was born with spina bifida and his legs are paralyzed.
But he doesn't seem to pay much attention to it, and his mom said David never lets it get him down, especially when holidays come around and he wants to be with his friends.
"Trick-or-treating for kids in a wheelchair is hard," she said. "It requires dad and I to carry him to every door so he can get the candy. But you can't stop him when he wants to do something."
"I want him to experience it all," Millie Killpack said, adding that Shriners has changed her son's life. "It's a healing process every time we come here."
The annual clinic is made possible by a generous donation from the Spirit Halloween store.
Shriners' spokeswoman Dawn Wright said she hopes members of the community see these costumes on the streets in their neighborhoods and "know that they helped give kids a real experience this Halloween."Comment on this story
"I think its amazing what they do for these kids," said Carrie Holder, whose son, J.J. has unspecified cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair.
"He was so alert and excited watching what they were doing," she said, adding that she knows the effort to create a “Monster's, Inc.” costume was making a difference to her son.
Kayden doesn't speak or give verbal cues, but was thoroughly enjoying being inside the makings of his taco truck costume — he was laughing out loud at times and, in the end, it was complete with all the fixings, made of cotton balls and shredded paper, of course.