Colorado-based Santa's Little Hackers bringing smiles to the faces of kids with special needs

WESTMINSTER, Colo. -- Max Watson is only a teenager, but he has a very important job that impacts the happiness of kids around the world.

He is the official Toy Tester for Santa’s Little Hackers, the non-profit his parents created as a way to provide adaptable toys to kids with special needs at no cost.

It’s an idea that started with a simple challenge after they found that buying adapted toys from specialty retailers were very expensive.

“We were walking through a Target and we saw the same toy that we had seen online. And I asked my husband if he could adapt that toy for Max, and he said, 'I don’t see why not,'” Max’s mom, Deana, told Denver7.  “We bought it and he brought it home and he was able to adapt it with just a couple dollars and pieces and made it accessible for Max. We showed it to one of his speech therapists and she said, ‘This is great. Do you think you could make it for some of the other kids I see?’ We said ‘sure’ and it sort of snowballed from there.”

Their goal is now to make sure every child who wants and needs an adaptable toy gets one.

“We’ve had parents through the last couple of years tell us that on previous Christmases the child would open the toy and it’s not a toy they could play with,” Deana remembered. “They couldn’t squeeze the button on the hand or on the toy, so they would have to have the parents or their brothers and sisters play with it for them and watch.  By making this adaption onto the toy and plugging the switch in then they can play with the toy. They can push the button and watch it sing, watch the lights come on.”

Deana and her husband, Steve, now adapt many of the toys themselves in the living and dining room of their Westminster home.  They have soldering irons, a drill press -- everything they need right there.  While they both work full time, they make the adaptations on weekends and late at night after Max has gone to bed.

The work involves getting into the circuit boards that make the toys light up, vibrate or make sounds, and adding a cable that allows the toy to be hooked up to the various switches used by people with special needs to operate other devices.

“Any person who uses a communication device uses switches to interact with that, even all the way up to Stephen Hawking,” Steve Watson told Denver7 contributor Hanna Atkinson.  “If you think of the world renowned physicist, he uses a communication device with switches.”

That means these are more than just toys -- they are also learning devices.

“It’s a cause and effect, where they learn if I press this button it makes my toy go off and it activates my toy,” Deana added.  “That that then teaches them -- if I press this same button it will activate my communication device.”

The toys are all donated to Santa’s Little Hackers or purchased with money given to the organization.  Cash donations are also used to buy the supplies needed to adapt the toys and to pay the costs of shipping the toys to recipients around the world.

“Last year we sent 500 toys to 45 states and eight countries. This year we’re hoping to send to every state,” Steve said, adding they’ve also received requests from at least 12 countries this year.

This year, the wish list is a little bit bigger.

“We only have about 500, maybe 600 toys right now and we had over 2,000 requests. So the only way we can provide toys is if there are donations,” Steve went on to explain. “We’re hoping people will hear and see the need and want to donate to try and meet that need.”

Finding the toys to adapt can also be a challenge. Santa’s Little Hackers identifies toys that can be easily modified, then crosses their fingers they can get as many as they need.

“Last year our biggest demand was for Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and our second-highest demand was for the Minion Fart Blasters,” said Deana. 

This year, those fart blasters are still in high demand, but since the movie is now old, they’re hard to find.

“All of the websites say the fart blasters are discontinued, so we’re trying to buy all them that we can find,” she added. “Amazon, Target, anywhere -- because we think they may be going away.”

The Watson’s do get help in adapting the toys at what they call “hack-a-thons,” where hundreds of volunteers show up to lend a hand.  No special skills are required.

“When volunteers sign up they give an idea of what their skills are,” Steve said.  “Some people know how to sew.  Some people know how to work with the circuits and solder and some people say, ‘You can use me anywhere.’ When people come to the event we find a place for them where they can be successful.”

While it’s a lot of work collecting requests, organizing donations, adapting toys and shipping them out, the Watsons say it’s all worth it to make someone’s life a little brighter.  It’s a lesson they’ve learned from living with Max.

“Max has introduced us to the idea that in order to get him out, in order to live a full life, there are some things that need to be modified,” said Steve.

“We want to provide a toy to every child who needs a toy,” added Dean. “Sometimes that means they need a toy that has been changed just a little bit so they can access it.”

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