Wake County

Triangle volunteers hack hundreds of toys for children with disabilities

Liz Cooke, left, and Julie Trotter work on reassembling a toy during a “Santa’s Little Hackers” event at the McKimmon Center at N.C. State in Raleigh, N.C. Saturday Oct. 22, 2016. More than 200 volunteers disassembled and rewired over 300 toys to make them more accessible for children with disabilities.
Liz Cooke, left, and Julie Trotter work on reassembling a toy during a “Santa’s Little Hackers” event at the McKimmon Center at N.C. State in Raleigh, N.C. Saturday Oct. 22, 2016. More than 200 volunteers disassembled and rewired over 300 toys to make them more accessible for children with disabilities. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Sandy McMillian remembers all too well the frustration of going Christmas shopping for a child who has a disability.

Her daughter, Kay McMillian, 21, a senior at N.C. State, was born with cerebral palsy, which among other things limits mobility in her hands.

As a child, she was never able to pick up a toy as her brother could or press the button that made the toy talk. Most toy stores used the “one-size fits all model.” And if there were toys that adjusted to children with disabilities, they were almost always more expensive.

“From a parent’s perspective, it’s so disappointing and you really just feel sad at what’s supposed to be a very happy time of the year,” Sandy McMillian said.

Steve and Deana Watson were having the same issue in Colorado. In 2014, the couple decided to organize an event called “Santa’s Little Hackers,” where they and a group of people disassembled and rewired toys, adding switches to make them more accessible for children with disabilities. Then they boxed the toys up and shipped them off to people in need around the world for free.

The event was successful, but the requests for more toys became overwhelming.

Meanwhile Chris Evans, a Raleigh entrepreneur, said he recently learned about the need for adaptive toys, saw what the Watsons in Colorado were doing and decided to help out. He organized an event Saturday at the McKimmon Center at N.C. State with more than 200 volunteers from around the Triangle to modify the toys.

And they did it all for free.

“We’re taking people that have different skills and expertise in the Triangle and using a system that has already been proven in Colorado to make it work,” Evans said.

The volunteers reassembled about 350 toys on Saturday and packed them in cardboard boxes to be given away. The goal of this year’s combined effort with Raleigh and Colorado is to reach 1,000 toys to give away. Each one is paid for by donors who sponsor a toy through the Santa’s Little Hackers website.

Some of the toys adapted at the event were hand-delivered to kids by N.C. Department of Health and Human Services employees, who work with children with disabilities.

Providing access

Lynee Dees, who works in the Vocational Rehabilitation Services Department of the NCDHHS, said many children with disabilities wish they were able to do the same things their friends or siblings without disabilities are able to do. Adaptive toys gives them the opportunity to do some of those things.

“We all are entitled to that kind of access to life,” Dees said. “We should be able to do what other people do.

“And this gives them access.”

Sitting in her motorized wheelchair, Kay McMillian smiled as she watched the volunteers take apart the toys and reassemble them.

“I think it’s awesome because as a person with limited mobility in my hands, I can empathize,” she said through a friend who helped translate. “And it gives them a toy they can play with independently.

“It’s hard to entertain a child when they can’t play with it themselves.”

Her mom agreed.

“I think the world would be wonderful if everything was built as far as accessibility goes,” Sandy said.

She noted that smartphones have been made more accessible to anyone who may have a disability, whether visual or speech impairment.

“So if we’re doing it with commercial products, why can’t we do it with toys?” she said.

Jonathan M. Alexander: 919-829-4822, @jonmalexander

Want more information?

To learn more about the need for adapative toys and Santa’s Little Hackers visit www.santaslittlehackers.com/.

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