When Ryan Weimer, 38, a nurse in Portland, Oregon, found out that his first son Keaton was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at just nine months old, he worried his boy would be forever defined by his disability.
A form of muscular dystrophy that affects motor nerve cells in the spinal cord, SMA could take away Keaton’s ability to walk, eat, and even breathe. Weimer resolved to give his son the best life possible—which is why, when Keaton was three years old and told his father he wanted to be a pirate for Halloween, Weimer brought out the woodworking tools.
Instead of simply clothing his son in a familiar pirate hat and eye-patch, Weimer built a wooden, five-foot-long pirate ship around his Keaton’s wheelchair, complete with black sails, a treasure chest, and a scurvy parrot perched on the rigging. Keaton’s costume not only made headlines in the local newspaper, but instantly changed the way people saw him.
“[People] saw my son before they saw his disability,” Weimer told Reader’s Digest over the phone. “For me to see that—I got choked up and right away. I knew that this was something I wanted other families to be able to experience.”
Building costumes for Keaton became an annual tradition. After several years, Weimer upped his game by subscribing to the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, a resource of prop-building lessons founded by the studio that gave us the cyborgs from Terminator and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, among other classic creatures. Soon Weimer was building dragons and drag racers with professional skill—and looking for ways to expand his reach beyond his family.
In 2014, Weimer founded Magic Wheelchair, a non-profit that builds and donates epic costumes to disabled children between the ages of five and 18. Funded by donations and manned by volunteers (including fellow members from The Stan Winston School), Weimer’s team invests upwards of $4,000 and 120 man hours per costume to create magic for disabled children on Halloween.
And best of all: Thanks to a tremendous response around the country, Magic Wheelchair is growing. Last year, Magic Wheelchair had six volunteer teams; in 2016 they have 20 teams spanning all the way from Los Angeles to New York City—and they will not stop there.
“Our mission is to build costumes for every kid in a wheelchair,” Weimer says.
From costumes such as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Van, to Toothless from the movie How To Train Your Dragon (which is now on display at the Kent State University Museum), the possibilities are endless for Weimer, his team, and his volunteers from across the country. Through Magic Wheelchair’s work Weimer hopes to not only create a positive impact, but also a little more empathy and understanding on what it really means to be a special needs family.
“Aside from all the costumes and the smiles, we build connections and community,” Weimer says. “It is a dream come true to be able to help people.”
To learn more about how you can donate, volunteer and ultimately create magic for all children with disabilities on Halloween, please visit MagicWheelchair.org