GV students help create “Halloween Heroes” at Mary Free Bed

Courtesy / Chris Mills from Mary Free Bed

Courtesy / Chris Mills from Mary Free Bed

Elyse Greenwood

Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital is known for being one of the only hospitals in Michigan that has a unit specifically for inpatient pediatric care, which serves about 130 children and teens each year. For the past three years, the hospital has been bringing joy to the children’s Halloween festivities through a special event called Halloween Heroes. 

Grand Valley State University’s Product Design and Manufacturing Engineering students have been involved in Mary Free Bed’s Halloween Heroes since the very beginning, with 30 students participating in the event this year. Halloween Heroes aims to give children the Halloween experience of a lifetime by allowing them to dress up as whatever they desire. The students designed and created 27 costumes that are not limited by wheelchairs or other disabilities. 

Each costume requires extensive planning and designing in order to incorporate wheelchairs because, just like how each child is unique, every wheelchair is also unique. However, no child’s costume dreams are ever too big for the GVSU students to accomplish. 

“When the kids arrive, we immediately start building the frame around the wheelchair,” said Taylor Rieckhoff, a fifth-year masters student at GVSU who took the lead on designing costumes this year.  “We take the wood and measure out where we will need supports from the wheelchair so when we attach the actual costume around the wheelchair, it will stay and not fall apart, especially because we cannot put the costumes directly on the wheelchair. Once we have the frame built, we can start cutting out poster, foam board, or fabric to start the creative design process. We incorporate a lot of lights, sounds and motions to really trick them out and make them realistic. One hard thing is that each wheelchair is different; some of them are bigger if the child’s older. But we make it work for every single one.”

To give the children the full trick-or-treating experience, the costumes were celebrated with a parade on Oct. 27 through and outside of the hospital. Some of the special participants in the parade included Forest Hills Central High School marching band, Cosplay Crusaders in superhero costumes and the West Michigan Therapy Dog Association. This year, a special judges choice award, called the Boo Award, was presented in honor of Willow, a patient who passed away this past year but was especially impacted by this event. 

“They are the stars of this day,” said Jake Stephens, a GVSU graduate who coordinated volunteers for the event.

Some of the costumes included a mermaid in a clamshell, Disney’s Moana in her outrigger, a king on a throne, the Polar Express and a bathtub that made real bubbles. The importance of this event is not to limit children in their costume choices, so they feel like any other kid on Halloween. 

“One thing that a lot of people take for granted is that you can choose whatever you want to be on Halloween,” Rieckhoff said. “You don’t have to think about any restrictions or obstacles because you’re not in a wheelchair. The first year I volunteered, I really took a step back and had this whole new perspective because I always had the privilege to put on whatever I wanted. Seeing the kids’ faces when they get a complete Halloween costume that hides their wheelchair, gets through doors, and lets them go about how they normally would on an average day is incredible. At the end of the day, everything we do and all our energy towards it is for the kids.”

This event was started by Jane Weatherford, whose son has cerebral palsy. They noticed the joy he had each year when they created a Halloween costume for him, and wanted to share that experience with other children, too. 

“Each kid,” Rieckhoff said, “whether in a wheelchair or not, should be able to have a great Halloween costume.”