SALT LAKE CITY — Halloween gives children a singular opportunity each year: a chance to disguise their true identities with scary costumes and get buckets of candy for free.
In the Skuza family, all the children rank it as their favorite holiday, except for 12-year-old Skylar, who ranks it third. He loves most aspects of Halloween, but trick-or-treating is a particular challenge. He needs a wheelchair to get around.
Skylar was born with spina bifida, paralysis and hearing loss, and he has been a patient at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Salt Lake City since he was 2 years old.
Instead of dwelling on his limitations, he spends time planning his costume and looking forward to dressing up.
“He does talk about the Halloween costume all year long,” said his mother, Shelly Skuza.
On Thursday, Skylar’s costume — a black Power Ranger suit — received a serious upgrade.
Each year, the staff at Shriners Hospital work to ensure that children’s wheelchairs aren’t simply hindrances on Oct. 31, but actually become part of the fun.
Months before the special day, workers quiz the young patients about their costumes and how to incorporate the wheelchair into the ensemble. Then they buy supplies and “just kind of take their imagination and our imagination and put it on the chair,” said Matt Lowell, a physical therapist at the hospital.
The idea started among staff in the hospital’s wheelchair department five years ago, and the costuming has grown in size and popularity since — among both workers and patients.
“The demand for it has grown every year,” Lowell said. “We get everybody coming back, and then we get everybody who finds out about it. ... You start with a skeleton and end up with a big ol’ monster.”
This year, they plan on transforming a record 41 patients’ wheelchairs into Batmobiles, boats and even robotic mastodons — which is what Skylar requested.
In total, the program has decorated 147 wheelchairs.
“They’re kids, and they have imaginations, and you never know what they’re going to pick,” Lowell said. “So, we’ve seen everything. So it’s pretty wild.”
Because of COVID-19, this year’s costuming is taking place over several weeks. It began on Sept. 14, and the final day will be Oct. 29. Each patient is assigned a day and time to watch as their wheelchair gets transformed in the hospital’s “big play room.”
“Before COVID, I mean, this whole room was filled with kids and different stations, and so it was kind of like a party,” Skuza said.
However, the hospital is doing its best to allow patients to show off their costumes while remaining safe, and workers have scheduled a virtual Halloween get-together on Oct. 29.
The design and construction process for each wheelchair usually takes around two hours, Lowell said. But unexpected changes in what kids want sometimes forces staff to work longer and get more creative.
Skylar is one of their more fickle clients.
“He changes his mind so much,” his mother said. “Like a few years ago, he told Shriners he was going to be one costume, and the day he came here they had it all planned, and he was like, ‘No, I’m going to be Ghostbusters.’ And it’s like, ‘Skylar, you already told them that you were going to be this.’ So they’re good at adapting.”
This year, Skylar had asked Shriners to turn his wheelchair into a motorcycle, but at the last minute, he decided on the mastodon instead.
“They’re all fun, and they’re all challenging,” Lowell said of the wheelchair costumes. “You can see, like, we’re making a robotic mastodon today. I mean, that wasn’t what I thought when I woke up this morning.”
Yet despite the challenges, increasing numbers of hospital staff turn out each year to help. To Lowell, all the effort is worth it because of the joy it brings to the patients.
“These kids go through so much challenge in their lives,” he said. “And it’s just awesome to let kids be kids. I mean, that’s what it’s all about to me. I want these kids to enjoy being kids.”
“Probably the biggest story I had was the very first year, we had a mom come back, and she said, you know, we never enjoyed Halloween because my son always had to just stay on the sidewalk while the kids went up to the door and bring (him) back candy. And when he went out in his Batmobile, everybody came down to them. Halloween came to those kids. Now they’re, like, so excited. I mean, we’ll go down to the door to get them, to bring them up here, and they’re spinning in circles, and they’re just, like, already on their sugar high.”
The Skuza family also attests to the benefits of a souped-up wheelchair.
“Something like this kind of makes his Halloween even cooler,” Scuza said. “Like a few years ago, (Skylar) did Ghostbusters … and so they had a parade at school, and he felt like the king of the school.”
The program was added to the hospital’s official budget a few years ago, but all of the cost is still offset by donations, Lowell said.
“Spirit of Children is an amazing group that has funded so much of this for so many years,” he said. “They have been a huge donor that basically lets us take that donation and put our budget back into the Shriner system.”