Where Empathy Meets Inspiration: Santa’s Helpers

Santa’s Helpers

Many of the children Rachel Hughes works with as a pediatric physical therapist can’t play with off-the-shelf electronic toys. “A lot of them have significant motor impairments and can’t push a button to activate the toys,” says Hughes, DPT ’19.

The MU Health Care Children’s Therapy Center — where Hughes has worked since she was a student — bought adapted versions of popular toys, which can cost up to five times more than the originals. Knowing the price tag, Hughes was dismayed when one of the adapted toys broke. As she took the toy apart to see if she could fix it, a light bulb went on in her head — but not before her temper flared.

“At first I was mad. There was steam coming out of my ears when I saw how cheap and easy it is to make the adaptation,” Hughes says. “When you think of these families who already have increased hardship and maybe only one parent can work because the other is taking care of their child, it’s outrageous to charge them so much for a toy.”

After anger came inspiration. Rearranging the toy’s wiring — a simple task involving wire snips and a soldering iron — gave her the idea to correct what she perceived as an injustice. “All kids learn through play, but not all kids have equal access to play,” Hughes says.

She started adapting donated and store-bought toys in her basement. That summer, in 2018, she asked her colleague Dana Chole, BS HES ’11, DPT ’14, to help her broaden the reach of her charitable work. Before long, they received financial backing, and the project became known as Pascale’s Pals Switched Adapted Toys. Pascale’s Pals — a volunteer organization that serves children and families staying at Children’s Hospital in Columbia — sponsored the first toy giveaway in December 2018 for children from all over mid-Missouri. The holiday giveaway is now an annual event. 

Volunteers adapt Nerf guns, train sets, remote-control cars, bubble machines and all manner of toys that move, make noise and light up. They rewire the toys to large external switches. “Essentially, what we do is give the kids a larger target [to push],” Chole says. “So instead of using a finger to push a little button, there’s a target the size of a tennis ball.”

Because Pascale’s Pals is a local charity, Hughes and Chole run a second organization called Switched Adapted Toys in an effort to establish chapters across the United States and teach volunteers and parents how to make adaptive toys. They’re still headquartered in a basement that looks like Santa’s workshop, and the work they do there doesn’t just transform toys. “When kids operate a toy on their own, their posture changes, they smile, sometimes they laugh,” Chole says. “The word that best describes their reaction is joyful. They look joyful and proud.”

Photo: Claudia Stephens, 3, plays with Switched Adapted Toys at Children’s Therapy Center May 20, 2020. Sam O’Keefe/University of Missouri

This story by Dawn Klingensmith, BA, BJ ’97, was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of MIZZOU alumni magazine.