A wheelchair can make a child stand out, and that's not necessarily a good thing. But on Halloween, some suburban parents transform their sons' and daughters' wheelchairs into magical creations.
This Halloween, 2½-year-old Sheldon Rognstad of Des Plaines isn't a boy in a wheelchair. He's a Chicago Blackhawk who did something naughty.
"We made him a hockey player inside a penalty box," says mom Julie Rognstad. That way, Sheldon, who has a rare neurological condition known as FOXG1, can celebrate the festive holiday with his mom, father Rob and 4-year-old sister Eleanor, who is dressing as a butterfly this year.
"It gives him a chance to participate in activities and dress up and have fun," Julie Rognstad says. "He becomes the center of attention for a good reason, instead of just his disability."
Rognstad saw the "penalty box" idea on a social media site. A friend of the family, Frank "honorary Grandpa Frank" Leicht, owner of Furniture Services Inc. in Wheeling, engineered Sheldon's costume. "It's made out of corrugated plastic and foam bumpers at the top," says Leicht, 65, who holds it all together with zip ties.
"It turned out wonderful," the mom says.
A great costume doesn't only transform a wheelchair; it transforms a kid.
"You could see the difference in his face," Natalie Sahinoglu of Palatine says of her 9-year-old son, Jacob, who went to school last year as an astronaut. Jetting around in a wheelchair made to look like the Space Shuttle captured the attention of all the children at his Willow Bend Elementary School in Rolling Meadows.
"When he saw the reaction of the other students, when they said, 'That's awesome!' you could see he thought that was really cool," his mom says. "They were clapping as he went by."
This year, Jacob's parents, Mert and Natalie Sahinoglu, still are in the process of moving into a new home, so Jacob is wearing "a regular old" store-bought Pikachu costume. "But I'm already thinking ahead to next year because we have a garage with power tools," the mom says.
Many suburban parents are sharing the viral video of Magic Wheelchair, a nonprofit organization started by parents Ryan and Lan Weimer in Oregon. Magicwheelchair.org turns wheelchairs into epic costumes. Instead of having a wheelchair be the metaphorical elephant in the room that no one mentions, this organization once transformed a wheelchair into the design of an elephant that had everyone talking. Volunteers have constructed dinosaurs that move, a pirate ship and a host of mythical creatures.
Spokeswoman Wendy Barrett says the program is expanding, but "unfortunately, we do not have a Magic Wheelchair in the Chicago area this year."
"We are building just a few epic wheelchair costumes this year but planning to expand and have teams building all over the place next year," she says.
In the meantime, Willie and Kelly Hedrick of Elk Grove Village did just fine with their homemade pirate ship for their 5-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, so she can celebrate Halloween with her 7-month-old sister, Alyssa, who has a pumpkin outfit.
"We just used cardboard we got from Kaitlyn's medical supplies, lots of duct tape and spray paint," Willie Hedrick says. "We made the flag out of felt."
It's so big that the family needed two cars to arrive at a Halloween party, where pirate Kaitlyn and her ship won first prize.
"It's just cardboard boxes, but everyone loved it," Kelly Hedrick says.
"We started seeing wheelchair costumes on Facebook and said, 'We could do that,'" says Sara Murdock of Palatine.
Last year, Murdock and her husband, Andrew, converted a wheelchair into a race car from "Wreck-it Ralph" for their daughter, Saida, who is now 10.
Every Halloween features an elaborate costume for Hope Jendreas, 10, of Elmhurst. Her red hair made her the perfect Pebbles Flintstone, so her father, Jeff Jendreas, converted her wheelchair into a Fred Flintstone car last year.
This year, she's going as SpongeBob SquarePants, while riding in Mrs. Puff's boat made by her dad.
"I do it because -- it's hard to talk about," Jeff Jendreas says, pausing as he notes that Halloween is the anniversary of his daughter's first seizure. "They treat her like any other girl. She's a happy, little girl."