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Central Gwinnett students build helicopter costume for specially abled toddler

Loud applause and excited cheers broke out as a pink and gray helicopter with a pink paw print in the center and a slowly rotating blade rolled onto Central Gwinnett High School's track Thursday evening.

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Cailin O'Brien
GWINNETT COUNTY, GEORGIA — Loud applause and excited cheers broke out as a pink and gray helicopter with a pink paw print in the center and a slowly rotating blade rolled onto Central Gwinnett High School's track Thursday evening.

Harper Jackson, 3, sat beaming in the passenger seat of what used to be her adaptive stroller. Now, it was her very own Paw Patrol helicopter.

"She loves Paw Patrol. She loves planes and helicopters," said Harper's mom, Michelle Jackson. "I think she's excited about the idea, even if she doesn't quite get it. It's awesome."

The toddler's stroller had been transformed into the ultimate Halloween costume by students from Central Gwinnett High School in partnership with Magic Wheelchair. It made its debut during the school's Safe Trick-or-Treat event Thursday.

Central Gwinnett High School has partnered with Magic Wheelchair for three years now. The non-profit focuses on providing epic costumes for kids in wheelchairs, who might feel left out during the Trick-or-Treating season.

Harper is one of those kids who could have a difficult time walking from house to house for treats. She suffers from a chromosomal disorder called Partial Trisomy 4, which left her legs with very little muscle definition.

The 3-year-old isn't bound to a wheelchair all the time. She can walk a bit with the help of leg braces. But if she needs to go any real distances, Harper's parents push her in a specialized adaptable stroller.

Harper's young life hasn't been easy. At just 6-months-old, she had open heart surgery. She's non-verbal and was just recently diagnosed with autism. It's a lot for Michelle and her husband, Seth Jackson, to deal with.

But about two months ago, the Jackson family got a call that made them all smile. Central Gwinnett students wanted to make a special costume fitted for Harper's stroller.

"I was really excited," Michelle said. "We've never been given an opportunity like this before."

Central Gwinnett's technical theater students have designed and constructed the wheelchair costumes for Magic Wheelchair children in their area each year. Then, they've made the kids the center of attention at their Trick-or-Treat event.

"It's always rewarding to actually know that most of the time these people, they don't have great Halloween costumes because of their disabilities," said Central Gwinnett senior Landon Rogers. "But this is one moment where all the attention is on them."

This was Rogers' second year working on the Magic Wheelchair project. He and some of his peers can still vividly remember building a full-scale kitchen around 10-year-old Anthony Hicks Jr.'s wheelchair last year.

"I think a lot of our students saw the scale of that and knew that we could do anything. It wasn't going to be limited by much of anything," said Technical Theater teacher Mike Tarver.

For Tarver, the limitless scope of the project was a tad intimidating. He's new in the Technical Theater teacher position this year and lead the Magic Wheelchair build for the first time.

"It's exciting, but there's also a lot of responsibility," Tarver said. "You want to make sure it's something special."

Harper's stroller was transformed into a helicopter with the help of insulation foam shaped into the body of the chopper. A string of lights decorated the inside and a ceiling-fan mechanism created a propeller that actually spun.

That was the Jackson family's favorite part.

"When I first saw it I got tears in my eyes, because it surpassed every expectation I had," Michelle said. "I mean I knew it was going to be good and I knew it was going to be nice. But when I saw it, I was like, 'Wow.'"

It wasn't easy constructing a Halloween costume that special for Harper's stroller.

"So because it is even more of a stroller-type, we had to think a lot more about weight distribution," Tarver said. "It couldn't be nearly as wide or nearly as heavy."

On top of that, the fan mechanism powering the propeller broke the night before the big reveal. Tarver, already strapped for time, had to rebuild that part of the costume. He said his students were still finishing up painting when the Jackson's arrived at Central Gwinnett on Thursday evening.

"We really could have used a few more days," Tarver said.

But Harper didn't care about any of that. She couldn't stop giggling and clapping as her parents, dressed as air patrolmen, pushed her new helicopter into the cheering crowd gathered on the school's field.

People handed her candy and kids stopped collecting candy from the booths arranged around the track to touch her stroller in awe.

"It made a super long night very worth it," Tarver said.

Michelle could scarcely keep the tears out of her eyes as she watched Harper soak in the positive attention. She and

"It was very emotional," she said. "I'm excited and overwhelmed at the amount of love shown here tonight. I'm just in awe."

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