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"Santa's Little Hackers" spread holiday cheer to hundreds through accessible toys

Posted at 5:47 PM, Dec 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-24 21:16:19-05

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — It’s a few weeks before Christmas, and a small army of people fills into a Broomfield gymnasium for a Saturday of work. Their mission: to make toys accessible to those who need them.

“Essentially, we’re taking things that work just fine and then making them work in a different way,” volunteer Cameron Trussell said.

Every person in that gym, totaling more than 400, is a volunteer. They are part of “Santa’s Little Hackers.”

“It’s our sixth year. We come together to adapt toys for children and adults with disabilities who can’t manipulate the switches that come on toys,” Deana Watson said.

The volunteers, sitting at a variety of workstations, will make some modifications so the toy can work with an accessible switch that many children with special needs have access to.

“So that they can be able to play independently, but that they can get some therapeutic benefit as well,” Deana added.

Deana and her husband Steve founded Santa’s Little Hackers out of their home, modifying toys just a few at a time, after learning about the need for accessible toys via their son, Max. He has a disability that doesn’t allow him to be able to use toys with push-buttons that come off regular store shelves.

“My son is very severely disabled. He’s not able to use his hands the way that you or I could to activate these toys,” Steve Watson said. “But by doing a simple modification where he can press a larger button, he’s able to play independently on his own.”

“With the toys they learn that they can access this button and it will activate a toy, but down the road they learn that if they access the same button and they can control a computer, or they can control a communication device,” Brittany Jansen of MaxMods, named after Max, explained.

Santa’s Little Hackers quickly grew out of the living room of the Watsons as the demand for their modified toys kept increasing. At their Broomfield event, the goal was to “hack” 1,500 toys, including Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear, Olaf from Frozen and more that talk, dance, make noise, or light up.

“For people that are receiving these toys, it’s completely free,” Steve said.

The toys come from donations made by the community, who can go to the group’s website and buy the toys off of a wish list. But even with volunteer labor and donations, there is still a cost.

“Our shipping cost last year was $38,000,” Steve Watson said.

Due to the rising demand, and what Steve explained as a country-wide decline in donations to nonprofits, that makes it more difficult to complete the mission of Santa’s Little Hackers.

“Every year of the organization, we have been able to meet all of the toy requests, except this year,” he said. “This year, we were 900 toys short to be able to meet all of the requests that came in.”

Steve and Deana explained that means they will just have to work harder next year to try to meet every request. Donations can be made on their website as well.

Nevertheless, the volunteers in Broomfield modified, packed up, and shipped out close to 1,500 toys for 2019.

“I think one of the most amazing things to me is that a group of individuals can come together, give a little bit of their time, give a little bit of their money, and can affect the entire world by doing something good,” Deana said.