One Kansas City nonprofit makes Halloween a treat by giving kids with mobility aids free costumes
Walkin’ and Rollin’ Costumes makes Halloween an inclusive holiday by making free custom costumes for kids with walkers or wheelchairs. For many, it’s the first time their mobility aid has been included in a costume.
When Heather and Craig Dahmer saw “Top Gun: Maverick” with their sons, 5-year-old Landon and 4-year-old Lucas, they knew they struck gold. Both kids loved the movie just as much as their parents loved the original “Top Gun.” But it was Lucas who couldn’t get enough.
As soon as he heard “Danger Zone,” Lucas was giggling and kicking his feet. After months of listening to the soundtrack and rewatching the movie, Heather knew her sons would want to be Maverick and Goose for Halloween. There was just one problem: she couldn’t find a costume that would incorporate Lucas’ wheelchair. Lucas was born at 27 weeks and had a brain bleed that led to cerebral palsy. Since then, Halloweens have been difficult.
That’s where Walkin’ and Rollin’ Costumes came in. The nonprofit creates free custom costumes for kids in walkers and wheelchairs. Walkin’ and Rollin’ created a custom fighter jet for Lucas, complete with personalized flight patches.
Since it started in 2015, the nonprofit has made about 165 costumes for children with mobility aids.
“As a special needs parent, one of those things that you're constantly trying to deal with is making them feel as included as possible,” Dahmer said. “Just being able to make him the center of it and not have to explain anything, he can just have fun and be just as a part of it as brother and all the other kids, I think is just incredible. I think it makes him feel more independent.”
Lon Davis started Walkin’ and Rollin’ in 2015, but the idea came to him long before that. In 2005, Davis’ son, Reese Davis, was born with stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare neck tumor that crushed his spinal cord and left him with limited mobility in his legs. When Reese got his first wheelchair at 3 years old, he was excited to incorporate it into the holiday he loved.
“When it came time for his costume, he told me that his wheelchair is now part of him, so it it has to be part of the decoration of his costume,” Davis said. “He said, I want to be Wall-E. That was the movie that was really big at the time. I thought, actually, that's a great costume for a wheelchair. I had an old Dell Computer box in our house and I thought, ‘Let's see if it fits.’ It happened to fit perfectly around his wheelchair and he could still drive inside of it.”
Davis went to school for animation and 2D drawing, so building a 3D costume was new to him. Plus, Reese told Davis that he could only work on the costume while he was in the chair, which provided another challenge. Soon enough, Reese was transformed into Wall-E.
Like any proud parent, Davis posted pictures of Reese’s costume. People responded to those pictures with requests for him to make one for their children. Each year, the requests kept rolling in. Davis put those ideas on the back burner until Reese got involved.
“When he turned 10 he said, ‘Not all kids have parents that build things for them like this. And I want other kids to experience this, too,’” Davis said. “We talked about it as a family and figured that if we're going to do this, the only way to really do it right is to do it as a 501c(3) and not charge people for the costumes.”
The nonprofit makes dozens of costumes each year for kids all over the region. Davis and Reese try to top their personal costumes each year as well. Reese loves “Ant-Man” and has made a movie-themed costume for each of the three installments. The costumes even got the notice of actor Paul Rudd, who’s been a pen pal for Reese.
Donations, costume sponsorships and volunteer work cover the price of the costumes, usually a couple hundred dollars.
Olathe East High School made Lucas’ costume, which debuted at Planet Anime earlier this month. The students meet the family and treat the child like a client — getting measurements, photos and anything else they need to get the design just right.
Lucas’ left side is more affected by cerebral palsy, so he can’t grab things as well. The students at Olathe East built a gadget into the fighter jet costume that allows him to grab candy with his right hand and put it into the bucket himself. For Dahmer, the care and attention the Olathe students put into the project meant just as much as the costume.
“I sort of cried when I saw it, because for somebody to take that amount of attention in time and detail to make it so special so that he can enjoy it just as much as the other kids is incredible to me,” Dahmer said. “If you're doing this in high school, creating this and you have this level of compassion that I saw with them just getting to know him, I can't imagine what they're going to do the rest of their life.”
Davis said Walkin’ and Rollin’ will have made 30 costumes by the end of this year, about 165 total. Walkin’ and Rollin’ receives far more requests than volunteers are able to build. Most of the time, applicants are selected based on whether the nonprofit can meet their design requests with the child’s mobility equipment and the resources available.
“There are different types of costumes that we have lesson plans for and examples that we can share with the team to kind of help them along,” Davis said. “But sometimes a high school, they pick the kid that they want because of the costume that the child wants. They take on that one because they are excited about the project.”
He wants to make more, but each costume takes about three months to build and requires a team of volunteers.
The Kansas City-based nonprofit currently has chapters at Wichita State University and the Blue Ridge Region — covering Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina. Next year, they’ll open at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Arizona, where Reese plans to attend.
“I'd love to grow it to where we have enough volunteers, enough chapters and teams to where we don't have to ship any costumes and we can get the word out that this is available to families … and we can meet every single request that comes into our website, hopefully soon,” Davis said.
This is Lucas’ first costume that incorporates his wheelchair, and the Dahmers are planning to make good use of it. He’s already shown off his “Top Gun” fighter jet and flight suit at six trick-or-treating events. Heather Dahmer has at least four more trick-or-treating events planned.
Oftentimes, a child in a wheelchair or walker can’t go up to the door to ring the doorbell because there are steps in the way and costumes are overshadowed by their mobility aids.
But Davis says that when they go out with costumes that incorporate Reese’s wheelchair, they hear other children asking their parents if they can have a wheelchair too.
“Being able to create these costumes basically covers everything to where they are no longer Batman in a wheelchair. They are Batman in the Batmobile. They are Cinderella in the carriage,” Davis said. “We create more than just the child's costume. We create an entire world for them to experience.”