Children with disabilities don’t always get to participate the same way other kids do. Physical or cognitive impairments can make it difficult for a kiddo in a wheelchair and his or her family to engage in certain activities, or to be seen for who they are beyond their condition.
This year’s SOLIDWORKS Magic Wheelchair recipient Savannah has a complicated medical history and sensory issues that present challenges for her and her parents. Her parents, Lacey and Mark, have always done their best to give Savannah the same experiences as other children. Living in Salem, MA, a.ka. The Halloween Capital of the World, Halloween is a huge part of their lives, and they work hard to create amazing costumes for Savannah so she can participate as well. But they’ve always wanted to introduce Savannah to more people and help people understand what living with disabilities is all about. Once they were connected to the SOLIDWORKS Magic Wheelchair build team and shared their costume and reveal ideas, it was the start of creating an extra-special, extra-inclusive experience for everyone.
Salem is famous for a lot of things and one of them is being almost unnavigable in October. There are so many tourists from near and far coming to visit, actually driving into the city (let alone parking) can be impossible. For the reveal, carpooling was a must. SOLIDWORKS partner TriMech has an office in Peabody, MA, one town over from Salem. They graciously opened their doors to the SOLIDWORKS build team, and team members traveled to the office and worked out carpooling details there.
The team arrived at the reveal spot, Salem Willows Park, at 3pm to set up. Salem Willows Park is a small lovely park with a stunning ocean view, beautiful willow trees, and, most importantly in October, plenty of parking. While the team put the costume together and did last-minute checks, park visitors walking by stopped to admire it and ask what it was, what it was for, how it had been built, “What’s a magic wheelchair?” and more.
Savannah and her parents arrived at the park at 4pm. By then, the costume was covered in a Magic Wheelchair drape and members of Savannah’s extended family were gathered for the big reveal. I presented Savannah’s parents with a collection of gifts and extras the team put together for them.
There was an extra BIGmack speech output button, a device Savannah uses every day. With this button, Savannah’s parents or teachers can record words or phrases and Savannah can push the button to respond to questions or be heard. Nicolas Lefebvre had experimented with the BIGmack to figure out how the costume’s electronics could function in a way that was familiar to Savannah. Now the family had two.
Team seamstress Rachael Naoum sewed up an outfit fit for a pop princess. She made a dress out of a sequins-covered material for a sensory element that Savannah could touch with her hands. She made a bow for Savannah’s signature scrunchy out of the same material. Rachael also created a series of bibs that were sewn to look like shirts with edges that could be tucked into a cute black vest. When Savannah heads out for the big parade, she would sparkle like a pop star.
The final gift was a trophy Albert Hernandez made using 3D Creator and xDesign. It was the very first thing he’d created when the team learned Savannah’s costume theme. The team also gave the family a collection of tumblers with the “Team Savannah” on them and a collection of “Team Savannah” t-shirts for their friends and family, along with a bandana for their dog, Georgia.
Then it was time for the big reveal. Albert and Annie Cheung took hold of the costume drape and the crowd counted down from five. Savannah doesn’t like sudden, sharp noises, so the team waved their hands in silent applause while the family gasped. Lacey turned away from the crowd and the cameras, happy tears welling in her eyes. It was exactly what they wanted.
Savannah communicates with the world using the BIGmack, a big red voice output button, and she loves music. When her parents, well-seasoned costume makers themselves, were thinking of a theme for her Magic Wheelchair costume, they decided to mix her love of music with the way she uses her voice and chose the judges chair from Savannah’s favorite popular singing competition, NBC’s The Voice. When a judge on The Voice hears a singer they like, they slam on a big red button. When the button is pressed, the chair turns around and lights go off. A fairly simple design with interesting electronics.
The SOLIDWORKS Magic Wheelchair build team took this theme and, like they always do, cranked it up to 11. The costume is a scale replica of the chair from the show, complete with cup holders for the aforementioned tumblers. For Savannah’s safety the chair does not spin, but the foam costume is designed to fit around her wheelchair and give her easy access to the red button, which controls everything.
Through an app designed by Chinloo Lama and Yun Li, Savannah’s parents can control the colors of the lights on the costume, the songs it plays from a playlist made up of Savannah’s favorite music, and the text that lights up across the LED panel in the base. All Savannah has to do is hit the button, and the chair responds. Dan Deoreo built in a light panel behind the button (which is also lit up) to catch Savannah’s attention and give her some enjoyment—she is legally blind, but is very attracted to light. The panel also houses the speakers for Savannah’s music, so she can dance along and enjoy.
While Lacey wiped her eyes, the team took the podium off the front of the costume base and helped her place Savannah into her wheelchair. The small group of family and build team members spent quiet, private time admiring the costume, taking photos, and giving Savannah space to be comfortable.
Then it was time to reveal Savannah’s new look to the world.
What’s the best way to show off an insane costume when you live in the Halloween capital of the world? At a Halloween parade! Every year the Salem Chamber of Commerce hosts the Haunted Happenings Grand Parade, meant to officially kick off the Halloween season in the city. Over 10,000 spectators attend. Savannah and her parents were huge fans of the parade but had never been able to participate in it. With Magic Wheelchair, they could.
This year, Dassault Systemes and the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab became parade sponsors. The SOLIDWORKS Magic Wheelchair build team was one of the 90 groups marching in the procession. Rachael Naoum and Chinloo Lama held the team’s banner, “Magic Wheelchair Presented by Dassault Systemes” and were closely followed by Sal Lama and Rachael’s partner, Levon Amiryan, who were pulling the star of the show, Savannah.
Pulling? Magic Wheelchair costumes are pushed, aren’t they? Normally yes, and Savannah’s costume is designed with an opening in the back for her parents to hold onto her wheelchair handle and push her. But the parade route featured large swaths of old cobblestones from Salem’s colonial days: not the best terrain for a costume on casters with little suspension. Knowing the route would cause Savannah’s wheelchair and costume to shake in a way that would make her uncomfortable, Sal Lama dove back into designing and created a wagon to pull the costume and Savannah along. He added rubber wheels to make going over cobblestones less of a hassle.
The rest of the team followed Savannah and her parents, ready to give out 700 goody bags to the spectators. The bags were filled with sensory toys, stickers, SOLIDWORKS light-up pins, and Magic Wheelchair flyers. When they (very quickly) ran out of bags, the team handed out Magic Wheelchair sticker sheets.
The sky was dark by the time the parade got going, making the lights on Savannah’s costume shine even brighter. As the group marched down the parade route, people on the sidelines gasped, oohed, ahhed, and cheered. The lights on Savannah’s chair changed color and pattern when she hit the button, and every time that button was hit, the crowd went wild.
As Savannah passed, people in the crowd reacted with delight. “What is that?” “How did they make that?” “That is so cool!” ”Nice chair!” were commonly heard. “She’s so cool!” one woman exclaimed upon seeing Savannah in her costume. “She’s way cooler than I am!” All along the parade route people chanted, “Team Savannah! Go Savannah!” and cheered, whistled, and whooped for her.
Savannah smiled throughout and her parents were overwhelmed at the outpouring of affection and attention from the crowd. Their daughter receiving so much positive attention and praise from strangers, people seeing how great Savannah is and cheering for her and being inspired by her, was something they always wanted and worked towards.
At the end of the parade, the rechargeable battery in Savannah’s costume ran down. The team provided the family with extras, and Sal, Chinloo, and Annie walked Savannah and her parents’ home. They showed Mark and Lacey how to take the costume apart and put it back together, and took the wagon with them back to the lab. Mark and Lacey expressed how grateful they were for the costume, the work the build team put into giving their family this experience, and Magic Wheelchair as a whole.
Savannah is going to wear her costume at school and for her normal trick or treating route this year. It is designed to fit through a standard doorway, and she will get a lot of mileage out of it. Her parents are already talking about how they can maybe use the base and create a witch’s cauldron for next year’s Halloween.
Near the end of the parade as the team marched down Salem’s famous Essex Street, Albert said to me, “It is cool hearing everybody saying, ‘that’s so cool!’” This was the fourth Magic Wheelchair costume the built by the SOLIDWORKS team, and it was the first time since the pandemic they’d been able to see the general public react to their hard work. Apart from our first reveal at Monster Jam in 2018, the other two reveals had been more intimate, with mainly friends and family of the costume recipients in attendance. This was the first time in a long time others could reacted to the costume, and it was from a much larger group of people. The appreciation from Savannah’s family and from the parade spectators was more than the team had expected, and it made them feel great.
Another person walking in the parade sidled up to Albert and me while we were talking. “Are you guys thinking about doing the parade again next year?” she asked.
Unable to stop smiling, I said, “We’ll talk about it.”
Savannah’s costume and reveal would not have been possible without the hard work of dozens of people. The SOLIDWORKS build team really turned it up to 11: Sara Berndt (Fabrication Support), Annie Cheung (Assistant Technical Director and Set Designer, Team Foreman), Dan Deoreo (Tabletop Designer, Electronics), Gabe Enright (Prop Design and Construction), Albert Hernandez (Assistant Technical Director and Set Designer), Chinloo Lama (Prop Designer and Scene Artist), Sal Lama (Frame and Wagon Fabricator, Wedge Wizard), Santiago Laverde (Wedge and CNC Advisor), David Law (Magnet Master), Nicolas Lefebvre (The Gaffer), Yun Li (Back Stage Screen Graphic Maker, Not-From-“Silicon Valley” App Designer), Meaghan Murphy (Goody Bag Builder and Photographer), Rachael Naoum (Master Seamstress), and Sara Zuckerman (Reveal Organizer and Documentarian).
A special thanks and shout out to the people behind the scenes who support the SOLIDWORKS Magic Wheelchair team: Suchit Jain (SOLIDWORKS and 3DEXPERIENCE Works Vice President of Strategy and Business Development), Abhishek Bali (North American 3DEXPERIENCE Lab Director and Executive Producer),and Sean Farrell (3DEXPERIENCE Lab Manager).
We always give thanks to the crew at Magic Wheelchair and Christine Getman for their friendship, guidance, and support. We would also like to thank Colleen Mavrakos at TriMech for opening their Peabody office to us. A special thanks to Jeff Schwartz and the Salem Chamber of Commerce for their help and guidance for the reveal, and for the extra special care and attention they took when placing Savannah in the parade.
Finally, this entire project would not be possible without Savannah, Lacey, Mark, Georgia, and their incredible family and friends. It was an honor and a pleasure to help create such a special experience for this family and help introduce Savannah and all her musical magic to the world.
The Magic Wheelchair project is proudly accelerated by 3DEXPERIENCE Lab and supported by Dassault Systèmes US Foundation. The 3DEXPERIENCE Lab is the global startup accelerator and open innovation program of Dassault Systemes and is committed to empowering startups and makers with ideas that can potentially shift scales of innovation in their particular domain. In the case of Magic Wheelchair, the project scored super high on its ability to leverage collective intelligence and 3DEXPERIENCE platform solutions to create huge impact on society.
The 3DEXPERIENCE Lab is made of up passionate makers, and any team of volunteers who want to work on building an epic Magic Wheelchair costume will be provided with free access to the 3DEXPERIENCE platform. The platform has a full range of 3D modeling, collaborative, information intelligence and simulation apps, including industry leaders CATIA, SOLIDWORKS, SIMULIA, and 3D SWYM. We invite anyone interested to join our community.
Does Magic Wheelchair sound like the kind of project you and your community would like to participate in? Get involved with Magic Wheelchair by starting your own team! You can also donate to Magic Wheelchair in Savannah’s name on her Classy.org page.
Now that the costume has been revealed to the world, keep an eye on the SOLIDWORKS blog for more about how we designed and fabricated everything that went into Savannah’s costume. There’s a lot more musical magic coming your way. Stay tuned!