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CLAYTON — When Michelle Harrell saw the story of the Magic Wheelchair organization, she wanted to get involved some way.
The mother of two joined the online community and patiently waited for two years for her first wheelchair costume assignment, hoping her talents and those family and friends could help bring a bit of joy to a family raising a child with special needs.
“The founder of Magic Wheelchair had been on TV,” Harrell said. “I just remember the story of him building a wheelchair for his son who had muscular dystrophy, and it just pulled my heart strings thinking of how blessed I am.”
“I knew I had the skills to do a magic eheelchair,” Harrell said. “I applied to go through the process to be a magic wheelchair builder. It was two years of silence where I didn’t hear anything.”
But the call finally came from the organization, and Harrell and her father, Robbie Hardison, began brainstorming ideas for a family whose son suffers from numerous medical complications.
Nate Breen, 19, wasn’t supposed to live past the age of 3. When Harrell and Hardison went to meet the Breen family, who happened to live in the same Clayton community, they noticed Nate lit up when he heard animated noises of automobiles. That inspired the two to formulate a plan to transform Nate’s wheelchair into a Vietnam-era M151 Jeep. Nate’s mom, Kim, had also driven a jeep during her time in the U.S. Army, which included a tour in Desert Storm..
“That’s how the story began,” said Harrell. “They said that this was someone in my neighborhood and the mother was retired Army and there were 200 kids on a waiting list with only six builders in North Carolina. I just felt like I had to do this.”
Harrell named her father master builder because of his engineering and woodworking experience. Hardison went to work designing the shell, taking into account its dimensions and practicality. Nate Breen struggles to sit up, and the wheelchair with shell needed to fit through a regular door frame. Hardison drew sketches and took measurements, fine tuning the design on a secondary wheelchair the Breen family let him borrow.
“It had a lot of limitations,” Hardison said. “It took a little bit longer than we anticipated. We started out with cardboard and moved onto hardboard siding. [Nate is] normally in a reclining position most of the time. We had to fix it so he could be in his wheelchair when we push it inside the jeep shell. From start to finish was six months. There was a lot of trial and error.”
Harrell works at the N.C. Museum of Art and helped her father finish the shell, adding flashing lights and a CD player, taking note of every little detail to create as authentic a jeep shell as they could.
“It was a matter of starting from the ground up with the family and also learning a great deal about accessibility,” Harrell said. “My dad brought an authenticity to it. Just the level of detail he put into every little part of it, the itty-bitty details hardly anyone else would notice. He poured so much of his heart and soul into it that it made us want to do even more. It definitely was a passion project.”
Six months passed, Halloween finally arrived, and the jeep was ready for the big reveal. Harrell, Hardison and the rest of the team presented Nate and his family with the jeep as it played patriotic music from its built-in bluetooth speakers.
The smile on Nate’s face said it all.
“With his disability, he can’t talk, but I know he knows what’s going on,” Nate’s father, Chris Breen, said. “When we got him in the wheelchair outside, he was grinning ear to ear. My wife immediately started crying. I was really shocked with how they did it and kind of welled up myself because I didn’t expect anything that nice.”
The Breen family spent the next several hours escorting their son around the neighborhood in his new ride, thanking people for their support and offering information on the Magic Wheelchair organization to whoever asked.
“That was one of the coolest things in the world to us,” said Chris Breen. “Just to see what people would do, to go above and beyond. What they did and the amount of hours they put into it was just incredibly awesome.”
Harrell hopes her story inspires others to get involved and help meet the needs of other children who are waiting in line for their chance to sport a magic wheelchair.
“It was very emotional for all of us,” Harrell said. “So many people still don’t know about magic wheelchair. I feel that sharing our story may inspire other organizations like high school woodshops, art clubs and Rotary groups to come together to fill those 200 children on the wish list. It was a very creative challenge. I think it brought him (Nate) a smile, but I think it was even more meaningful for us to be a part of this.”
For more information, visit magicwheelchair.org.