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How a Colorado family launched a Christmas toy hack-a-thon for children with disabilities that has gone global

Santa’s Little Hackers started small, but now hundreds of volunteers gather for a 21st-century workshop that adapts toys -- and changes lives

Tech comes to Santa's Workshop: a stuffed Mickey Mouse toy undergoes surgery to adapt it for use by kids with disabilities. (Anthony Quintano, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Five years ago, a silly toy inspired an enduring tradition of Christmas magic.

Fart Blaster, a whimsical gadget spun off the popular “Despicable Me” movie franchise, emits the sound you’d expect, along with flashing lights, when a child pulls the trigger. For Steve and Deana Watson’s then-9-year-old son, Max, who has severe disabilities, it held the irresistible appeal it would for almost any kid.

By pressing the large red button near his right hand, Max Watson, 15, can activate the Fart Blaster his dad adapted five years ago. His mom, Deana, looks on in their Westminster home. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

But its operation demanded fine motor skills that make it virtually inaccessible. Online, his parents found an adapted version of the $15 contraption — for about $80. Outraged at the markup, Deana asked her husband if he might be able to adapt it on his own so they could give it to Max for his 10th birthday. Steve, who works in the tech industry and has dabbled in electronics since he was a child, figured why not?

He disassembled the Fart Blaster and, with a simple accessory that cost a couple bucks, hacked it so the toy could be plugged into the everyday technology that Max and many other kids with severe disabilities routinely use to convert basic movements into more complex functions. That quickly, that simply — that inexpensively — Max gained control over a toy that still brings him joy.

“So we bought a $15 toy, added a $2 wire, and it magically became an $80 toy,” Steve recalled.

Magic? That was still to come.

Steve Watson, right, explains how a toy race car is adapted for use by kids with disabilities while his wife, Deana, and a volunteer look on. Steve and Deana founded the non-profit MaxMods, which gave rise to the Santa’s Little Hackers event. (Anthony Quintano, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In fact, the magic didn’t happen all at once. It evolved, slowly in some respects, but at warp speed by other measures. Each step along the way seemed almost ordinary, a logical progression, until the sum of the parts, observed from a distance, appeared nothing short of miraculous.

Yes, it began with that toy. But the idea quickly snowballed. The Fart Blaster was a huge hit with Max — and not just because it made rude sounds. It gave him the means to connect with others in a fun way. He had grown bored with the more readily available baby toys. This thing rocked.

“For a kid who can’t tell a joke, it got an immediate laugh,” his mom recalled. “That’s what he loved about it. He’d let a big ripping toot go out from that Fart Blaster and everyone would stop and crack up, and he would crack up. It was a way for him to interject himself into the conversation and make people laugh.”

Max’s speech therapist, Brittany Jansen, saw its effect and wondered: If she gave the Watsons a list of other kids who came to the clinic, could the couple make more toys like this? That got Steve and Deana thinking about all the kids who’d benefit from having an adapted toy.

Then they started thinking a little bigger. What if they created a nonprofit organization? They could seek donations to purchase a variety of toys and the material to adapt them. So they filed the paperwork to create MaxMods — shorthand for “maximum modifications,” but also a nod to their son — and, with the help of friends, therapists and techies, held the first event.

Santa’s Little Hackers was born.

Toys lined up in the boxes they are to be shipped in awaiting to be modified by Santa’s Little Hackers. (Anthony Quintano, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In 2014, that first year, they got a few dozen people together in some space donated by Max’s therapy clinic in Firestone and went to work. Meanwhile, Steve and Deana, after putting Max to bed, spent nights at their dining room table, where they set up shop and churned out another 20 pieces or so to keep pace with requests.

All told, the group adapted more than 100 toys. It also became clear that they’d need some sort of registration process to organize the influx of both donated toys and volunteers. And so as word spread that the simple joys of battery-operated toys could be available and affordable to children of all ages — adults with developmental disabilities also benefit — requests from parents and caregivers started flowing in.

“This is the missing gap,” Deana said. “Plenty of families can’t afford these adapted toys.”

For a kid who can’t tell a joke, it got an immediate laugh. It was a way for him to interject himself into the conversation.

Deana Watson, mother to Max and co-founder of Santa’s Little Hackers, on her son’s toy “Fart Blaster”

Under other circumstances, that might have been as far as it went — a charitable holiday venture to provide free, adapted toys to kids who might otherwise never experience the interactive playthings.

But because of the organic way that word about the effort spread, virtually all the participants had some connection to the community of kids with disabilities. And that meant they understood that their work meant more than just an assurance that these kids would have a gift beneath the tree.

Whether it’s a Fart Blaster or a music player or a stuffed bear that moves and talks at the press of a button, the adapted toys encourage kids with disabilities to learn cause and effect. Press this, and something happens. The hacked toys facilitate independent play because children can activate them on their own.

But the learning process that activates a toy — for instance, pressing a large button or, for those with less control of their limbs, tilting the head to make contact with a switch — eventually applies to more complex technology, such as communication devices. That knowledge opens the door to even more-wondrous things.

“People think we’re just some good Samaritans who know this is a need to fill,” Deana said. “But everyone who’s involved has a direct link to the community and knows how important it is. It can really change the quality of their life.

“I still get emotional about it,” she said, her voice wavering. “It’s such a huge deal for kids whose body doesn’t work for them and who want to do things. We get letters from parents every single year, saying, ‘This is the first time he ever played with a toy,’ or ‘You have no idea how much this means to us — our daughter just used switches to make her communication device say ‘I love you.’”

About 300 volunteers worked to adapt a variety of toys for kids with disabilities at the Santa’s Little Hackers event on Dec. 1 at the Adams 12 Five Star Schools conference center in Thornton. (Anthony Quintano, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The fifth annual event arrived on the first weekend in December. First, it appeared as a steady procession of vehicles into the parking lot of an Adams 12 Five Star Schools administration building, and then it morphed into knots of volunteers streaming inside, where they assembled in the massive events center.

It’s the third year that Santa’s Little Hackers has used this donated space, which had a variety of adaptable toys lined up and ready for action. And, as the room filled, it became more and more apparent that this may be the last year the event can be held here. The stacks of toys and rows of boxes and work tables — and volunteers coming and going from every direction — made moving through even this expansive space a dodge, bob and weave proposition. And there’s no reason to think that there won’t be more toys, more boxes, more people when the holidays come around again.

The experience has that effect on volunteers.

“Everyone who comes brings a friend the next time,” Deana said. “And the next thing you know…”

Steve took the microphone and addressed roughly 300 volunteers — about five times the first-year turnout — who devoted their Saturday to working as oversized elves in a 21st-century Santa’s toy shop. Amid the basic instructions for how the production line would operate, Steve offhandedly remarked that this effort is, already, the largest of its kind in the world.

Literally, we buy all Amazon has, and when they no longer have them, choose a secondary toy because the inventory is all gone.

Steve Watson, co-founder of Santa’s Little Hackers, on the difficulty finding toys to adapt

It didn’t take long for the Watsons to realize that their workshop needed more structure and efficiency to handle the rising number of requests.

“We spent time after year two defining process flow,” Steve said. “Once you have defined the flow, you can see where you need bodies to do each task, and runners that move the toys between stations. That flow has been what’s helped us to scale from 500 to over 2,000 toys.”

Now, just buying the toys can be a struggle because of the sheer numbers. They seek a variety of toys geared to different development levels — stuffed animals to race cars — but getting a single toy in sufficient quantities can be challenging. Also, the group tries to stay on top of the latest trends — unfortunately, the Fart Blaster is now just a footnote to history.

“We empty the warehouses of every vendor that we can buy from,” Steve said. “Literally, we will buy all (of a specific toy that) Amazon has, and when they no longer have them, choose a secondary toy because the inventory is all gone.”

The organization discovered one way to get a head start on the adaptation process. After the second year of the event, a volunteer asked if her company, Medtronic, could hold a smaller event as a kind of team-building exercise for employees. They’ve worked together for the past three years, and the collaboration this year completed 200 toys in an afternoon.

On the December day that the volunteers arrived at the Thornton location, the process ran with assembly-line efficiency.

On one side of the room, workers unpacked toys from their original packaging and placed them into new boxes that eventually became the shipping containers. From there, runners distributed the boxes to tables where groups of workers focused on disassembling the toys to expose the electronic elements that eventually would be modified.

Some of the more experienced volunteers sported T-shirts that said: “I void warranties.”

Cici Fischer, 11, uses switches activated by tilting her head to test some of the adapted toys at the Santa’s Little Hackers event held on Dec. 1. Her mom, Jenny, said that adapted toys can help kids like Cici learn to use more complex communication devices. (Anthony Quintano, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lindsay Koller followed the directions for disassembling the soft toy nicknamed Ballerina Bear from the “cookbook” that Steve put together as a guide. Her sister is Max’s speech therapist, and Koller has been to all five gatherings.

She snipped a seam and dug into the plush toy to find the battery, then pulled it out far enough to expose the wires. “Next,” she said, “we send it to the geniuses who rewire it.”

A runner swooped by to grab the box and transport it to the other side of the events center. There, people sat at tables patching a foot-long connector wire, called a dongle, into a toy’s existing wiring.

“Then comes the fun part,” Mary Billmaier said, taking a soldering iron in one hand and a length of solder in the other and leaning close for the delicate work. “You have to make sure you get all the copper wire covered with solder.”

In the middle of the room, two men worked with a drill press to bore small holes in the hard plastic toys to create an outlet for the new connecting wire. Fred Schmidt and Rick Langille are first-timers, but they quickly got into the spirit of the work.

“We’re the elves,” Langille said.

“I’ll never look at a Santa Claus movie the same way again,” added Schmidt.

For a person with experience, it might take two minutes to adapt a toy. Although Santa’s Little Hackers are always looking for volunteers familiar with the process — whether it’s soldering, sewing or working the drill press — inexperience isn’t an impediment for anyone who wants to pitch in.

Mary Billmaier, who teaches homebound students in the Adams 12 Five Star school district, soldered wires to adapt toys for kids with disabilities at the annual Santa’s Little Hackers event Dec. 1. She had never used a soldering iron before volunteering three years ago. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

“There are people who show up who have never soldered before,” Steve said. “With the direction we give them from toy ‘cookbooks’ and sitting around the table with other people who know how to do it, they’re able to pick it up very quickly. One of things that’s not well understood in the disability community is that this is a task that’s accessible to most people with basic tools. They just don’t know how, is the bottom line.”

Billmaier, who teaches homebound kids in the Adams 12 district, has volunteered for the past three years — and had never soldered anything before she adapted a toy. Once she completed her work, she made sure the connection functioned before sending the piece off to its next stop.

With a Santa hat perched atop his head, Peter Murphy marked the first line of quality control. He tested each toy that arrived at his table and either OK’d it or, if it malfunctioned, sent it back for reworking. He and his wife started volunteering three years ago after hearing about the project from their daughter, a pediatric home-health nurse.

“I get more out of it than I’m putting in,” Murphy said. “What is Christmas but caring and sharing? It’s an amazingly long day, but it goes quickly.”

Volunteer Peter Murphy worked on quality control by testing adapted toys to make sure the new connections functioned properly. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

Once successfully rewired, the toys headed to the reassembly stage to be either screwed or stitched back together with the new connector protruding. Nicole Berkman, a commercial real estate broker who has been a fixture at every event, sat at a table where workers stitched up Minnie Mouse toys with long, careful pulls on a length of thread.

“It’s such a small area, it has to be very precise,” she said, “and you want to make it sturdy enough to last. Even though it’s only a 1- or 2-inch area, it takes about 10 minutes to sew together.”

Berkman loves the idea of making something once inaccessible suddenly accessible — and she loves the way the workflow creates an atmosphere appropriate to the season.

“The way it’s set up, you feel like you’re in Santa’s workshop,” she said. “There’s a lot of energy and a lot of teamwork.”

The team also included 11-year-old Cici Fischer, who earlier said she was “happy” and “excited’ to be part of the event. She may not have said it aloud, but she prompted the communication device on the small screen attached to her wheelchair to make it known. Cici provided another layer of quality control as she tested toys that her mother connected to her own equipment.

“People don’t realize how key that communication is for kids,” Jenny Fischer said as she watched Cici put a toy through its paces. “There’s a huge difference in life expectancy if they can communicate. And play leads to communication. All it takes is a $4 wire and some know-how.”

Another round of checks preceded packaging each toy for shipping. Every box already had been marked with its contents, so it could be matched on a master database with the name of someone who has requested that toy from a wish list on the group’s website. Once volunteers affixed a shipping label, they stacked the boxes in a hallway outside the workshop.

The rest was up to Santa. Maybe with some help from FedEx.

A volunteer stacks boxes of finished toys at the Santa’s Little Hackers event on Dec. 1. More than 2,000 toys found their way to kids with disabilities in every U.S. state and to 22 other countries. (Anthony Quintano, Special to The Colorado Sun)

About a week before Christmas, Max, now 15, sat in the living room of his family’s Westminster home. It was a school day, and his teacher had come by, but with the holiday fast approaching, he didn’t feel in much of a mood for academics.

A collection of his toys was perched on a nearby table. He was the inspiration for Santa’s Little Hackers, and now Max demonstrated how he could operate them with a large button on the tray of his wheelchair.

He coaxed opera from his music player. He rolled dice that tumbled beneath a plastic dome when he pressed the button. He set the room sparkling with colored light from a small toy that resembled a disco ball. And, when his dad hooked the adapted Fart Blaster to his switch, he triggered a grand cacophony, just for old time’s sake.

“But the important thing,” Steve said, “is that all these helped him learn to use his communicator.”

Max tapped out his confirmation.

“It gives me a voice.”

Toys that hone the potential to communicate arrived in every state in the U.S. and 22 other countries this year. At first, it was just Canada. Then, one year, a request came in from the United Kingdom. Then Serbia, Greece, Italy. This year, toys arrived at far-flung destinations from Australia to Norway to South Africa to Uganda to the Philippines to Hong Kong.

Some families couldn’t wait — already the Santa’s Little Hackers’ Facebook account featured photos and videos of kids independently operating race cars, bubble machines, stuffed animals. And for all the work, the donations, the volunteers and the hacking, it’s the stream of words, photos and videos — trickling in before the holiday and then exploding on Christmas Day — that contains pure magic.

This year, Deana, who spends months organizing and planning, simply marveled at what the organization had wrought in so short a time. It seemed “equal parts crazy and incredible.”

“Every year,” she said, “it just takes my breath away.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Brittany Jansen’s name.


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