VCU dentistry and medicine students and alumni create Halloween magic for family

VCU students and alumni reveal a Magic Wheelchair Halloween costume made for Alex Hayes during a ...
VCU students and alumni reveal a Magic Wheelchair Halloween costume made for Alex Hayes during a party planned by her family. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Sarah Simpson)

As Halloween nears, people of all ages are finalizing their costumes for a fun night of trick-or-treating or a Halloween party. Coming up with a unique idea and collecting and/or making the pieces to bring that idea to fruition can be a challenge and take time.

Students and alumni from the Virginia Commonwealth University schools of Dentistry and Medicine  experienced this firsthand this fall. They partnered with the nonprofit organization Magic Wheelchair and spent eight weeks and 200 man-hours creating a custom Halloween costume for Alex Hayes, a 16-year-old with a rare chromosomal mutation called GRIN2B.

During the first week, the students met with the family, got to know Hayes and discovered that her favorite toy was a Fisher Price See n’ Say that plays farm animal sounds. From there, they decided to construct a barn that would completely cover Hayes’ wheelchair and make her the focal point inside. The design required a lot of measurements and framing, which the volunteers tested on Hayes’ chair to ensure it fit properly and was not too heavy or bulky.

The students spent roughly six weeks in a rented storage shed working to bring the farm to life. The final product was a 7-feet-by-5-feet foam red barn with white trim and a black shingled gambrel roof with a loft and window. Hayes would be dressed as a rooster, her favorite animal, sitting inside the barn while hay bales, fall décor and a sign that read “Alex’s Farm” decorated the outside.

Alex Schloe, a fourth-year medical student, and Hunter Simpson, VCU School of Dentistry alumnus and head builder of the project, plan out how to piece the barn together. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Sarah Simpson)
Alex Schloe, a fourth-year medical student, and Hunter Simpson, VCU School of Dentistry alumnus and head builder of the project, plan out how to piece the barn together. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Sarah Simpson)

“While the project is still assisted largely from VCU dental students, this year we have become more interprofessional and added VCU medical students to the mix,” said Sarah Simpson, a fourth-year School of Medicine student. “This seems natural for my husband [Hunter Simpson, head builder of the project] and me as we bridge that connection; he, the recent School of Dentistry graduate, and me, the fourth-year medical student. Often within the space of the storage locker we used to assemble the project, you would hear a variety of classic ‘shop talk’ with dental and medical terms, acronyms and stories. But the bond that glued us together was Alex.”

Magic Wheelchair funded the project and the students also contributed through a bake sale which raised $300.

"Alex's Farm" ready to be presented to Hayes. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Sarah Simpson)
"Alex's Farm" ready to be presented to Hayes. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Sarah Simpson)

Ryan Weimer, the brother of School of Dentistry student Travis Weimer, founded Magic Wheelchair after making the “biggest and baddest” Halloween costumes he could for his sons with spinal muscular atrophy. Once news of these costumes spread, he began receiving requests from parents all over the world asking him to transform their child’s wheelchair into something magical. In 2015, Ryan Weimer and his wife, Lana, created Magic Wheelchair to “put a smile on the face of every child in a wheelchair.”

The final costume was revealed to Hayes and her family on Oct. 22, during a party attended by more than 60 guests. The entire Hayes family, including the dog, dressed up as farm animals and Hayes’ grandfather dressed as Old MacDonald to push Hayes’ wheelchair while she sat in her barn. Her eyes lit up and she had a huge smile while sitting in the creation that was made just for her.

“This is becoming a tradition that I hope VCU will continue,” said Simpson. “Because little girls like Chloey and Alex will never forget the impact that Magic Wheelchair and the volunteers made when they dressed up as their favorite things and had the time of their lives.”