Then last year, she came across the Halloween workshop at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Salt Lake City, where volunteers turned her son’s wheelchair into the Batmobile and suited him up in a Batman costume. All the kids in their Clinton, Utah, neighborhood swarmed Carter to get a closer look at him and his crime-fighting wheels. It was the first time, Thorup said, that Halloween was fun.
“It used to be that I could never get Carter close enough to the porch while trick-or-treating,” she said. “But now, because of his costume, everyone comes to him.”
At the Shriners hospital costume clinic, volunteers armed with power tools, cardboard, paint and PVC pipe transform kids' wheelchairs into stagecoaches, magic carpets, school buses, tea cups and pirate ships. They create handmade firetrucks, racecars and princess carriages, then “wrap” them around children and their wheelchairs in time for Halloween.
Carter, now 8, returned to Shriners with his mom last week for a new hero costume. This year, he’s going trick-or-treating as an Optimus Prime Transformer.
“It’s the coolest idea ever to do this for kids,” said Thorup, as a “pit crew” of four swarmed around her son to size up his wheelchair and figure out the best way to transform his wheelchair.
Matt Lowell, director of the Utah hospital’s seating and mobility program, came up with the idea of a decorating day in 2016 after hearing from parents that it was difficult to find or make Halloween costumes that included a wheelchair.
"We had no idea what we were doing, but we learned as we went along,” said Lowell, 44. “It turned out to be the most rewarding thing we'd done all year."
Last year, volunteers built everything from a space shuttle and safari Jeep to a taco truck and a “Monsters, Inc.” door for 20 disabled children. And last week, 28 young patients showed up in shifts to have their wheelchairs turned into any costume they could dream up.
After talking to the parents of some of the children at the Shriners costume clinic, Lowell said he went home touched by what he’d learned.
“I heard things like, ‘My boy went from being the kid nobody wanted to trick-or-treat with to the coolest kid on the block,’” he said. “They now feel included, and that’s how it should be.”
Happy tears spilled from Julie Cheever's eyes as she watched volunteers turn her son, Drew, 4, into Woody from his favorite movie, “Toy Story,” and then put together a horse, “Bullseye,” for him to ride from his wheelchair.
"This is my 'neigh'!" exclaimed Drew, using his word for “horse” and grabbing hold of the red reins. “Giddy-up, neigh! Giddy-up!"
Cheever, a single mom of six from Salt Lake City, said Drew, her youngest, uses a wheelchair because he has spina bifida.
“When a child is in a wheelchair, people often look past them, and Halloween is no exception,” Cheever said. “But when they suddenly have this big, fantastic costume, all of that changes. Everyone wants to see it and talk to Drew. It’s made a huge difference.”
Ken Kozole, who helped create Drew’s costume and has worked in the hospital’s wheelchair and seating program for 21 years, said watching the boy’s reaction made him realize how something as simple as a stuffed horse can brighten a child’s life.
“We put the hat on [Drew] and all of a sudden, he’s Woody,” he said. “That’s what I love most — just watching these kids act out once their costumes are finished. It’s a joy to watch them and their parents just enjoying the moment, having a good time. That’s what brings it all home.”
No project is too challenging for the costume crew, said Lowell, who has families submit costume choices in early October so that he can purchase supplies with funds donated for the cause.
"Last year, we had a troll doll named Poppy coming out of a cupcake that had us thinking quite a bit,” he said, “But we did it. And this year, we have a white rabbit in a teacup and Superman coming out of a phone booth. Whatever it takes, we'll get it done."
After learning about the creative decorating going on in Salt Lake City, costume supplier Spirit Halloween decided to donate to the hospital’s costume fund and work with Lowell and other volunteers to design four wheelchair-friendly costumes to sell nationally online for $100 each.
A princess carriage and monster truck are available this season in limited quantities on Spirit Halloween website. The site had a rocket ship and racecar that already sold out.
“We’re so inspired by this hospital and what they’re doing,” said Todd Lowe, a zone manager for Spirit Halloween. “Kids with physical limitations deserve to participate in Halloween the same as any kid."
Back at the hospital, Mayra Bekins, a 52-year-old mother of seven from West Valley City, Utah, pitched in to help design her daughter Rachel's turquoise Princess Jasmine costume, complete with a flying carpet. Rachel, 8, was born with cerebral palsy, and can still use a walker, but Bekins knows the day is coming when her daughter will need to use a wheelchair all the time.
A few years ago, she dressed up her entire family, including Rachel, as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
"I've always loved Halloween,” she said.
This year, though, she was happy to have help with Rachel’s costume.
"It's wonderful how they helped pull it all together,” she said, waving at Rachel as she maneuvered her “flying carpet” in circles on the hospital's rec room floor.
There was a flurry of activity going on in seven stations around her. In the booths next to hers, a 4-year-old girl was getting outfitted with a pirate ship and a 19-year-old teen who loves taking the bus to school is having his wheelchair transformed into a bright yellow bus with him as the driver.
“Every parent here feels the same way, we can’t thank them enough,” said Bekins. “They help everyone to see there is more to each child than a wheelchair. These costumes help bring out the magic.”