Ryan Weimer wanted a very special Halloween for his son Keaton. It was 2008, the first year that the 3-year-old—who had been diagnosed as an infant with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic disorder that progressively weakens the voluntary muscles—would be dressing up in a costume since he'd started using a power wheelchair. "When my wife, Lana, and I asked Keaton what he wanted to be, he told us, 'A pirate!'" Ryan, 38, recalls. "He's a fun-loving kid who never let his condition hold him back. I wanted to make a costume that would let him be himself."
An eye patch and a puffy shirt wouldn't do. Ryan wanted to build a wooden pirate ship that would fit over Keaton's wheelchair. He worked in the backyard of his home in La Grande, OR, for about 100 hours before showing the project to Keaton. "I'd never seen his eyes get so big," Ryan says. "He went trick-or-treating and was a superstar. Usually people can't look past the wheelchair, but that night people saw Keaton the way we do."
After moving to Keizer, a Portland suburb where he works as a nurse at a youth correctional facility, Ryan founded the nonprofit Magic Wheelchair in 2014. A Kickstarter campaign raised $25,000, enough to build costumes for seven other lucky kids, some of whom Ryan found through the Muscular Dystrophy Association's Portland chapter. Thanks to local news coverage—and a viral Buzzfeed video that got 20 million views (search for it at buzzfeed.com)—word spread fast. Builders stepped up in Portland, Eugene, Salem, even Los Angeles and Atlanta to select children they wanted to help. "We provide money for each team," says Ryan. "And we can connect them to a network of volunteers that includes experts from movie set construction guys to special-effects pros."
Making a Difference
Each costume is a kid's fantasy come true. Hunter Powers, a 15-year-old in Eugene with spina bifida, a birth defect that involves the incomplete development of the spinal cord, received a custom-built Quinjet, the high-tech transport from TV's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He beamed with excitement at the reveal. "Hunter was so happy, he was in shock," says his mom, Ginger Kanwischer. "I just started crying. What Ryan does for these kids is amazing."
Labor of Love
Magic Wheelchair now has chapters in 10 states, and the goal is to make 25 costumes this Halloween, up from 7 in 2015. Ryan is still building costumes for Keaton, now 10. "Last year he was Indominus Rex from Jurassic World, and this year he wants to be Spider-Man riding the Spidey Cycle," he says. Ryan and Lana are also parents to Bryce, 4, who has SMA too, and 1-year-old Thatcher. "If Ryan's going to have a consuming passion, this one is ideal," says Lana. "He's always thinking about making another kid's dream come true."
For more information or to donate, visit magicwheelchair.org.