All eyes were on Alton C. Crews Middle School student De’Von “DJ” Johnson as he posed for pictures in a custom built Marvel Studios Black Panther-themed wheelchair and costume.
“This is crazy. This is crazy,” Johnson, 12, repeated.
A small group of teachers and staff gathered outside the middle school Friday at noon to get a look at Johnson’s new wheels, which were adorned to look like a replica of Black Panther’s Royal Talon Fighter.
The event was made possible by Central Gwinnett High School as part of the nationwide Magic Wheelchair program to dress up wheelchairs of children with disabilities in order to give them a special Halloween experience. This was the sixth year the high school participated in the program.
“He was a real celebrity today, a real superhero,” Megan Rose-Houchins, Central Gwinnett Fine Arts and Communications Academy coordinator, said. “He just embodies the whole idea of being Black Panther, and it was great to see that.”
Johnson suffered a near drowning in 2014. As a result, he began having over 30 seizures a day. Johnson’s mom Chaquita Titi said he had to undergo brain surgery to control the seizures, which left him in a wheelchair.
With extensive surgery, however, Johnson is learning to walk again.
Unlike years past where thousands of students gathered at Central Gwinnett High School’s football stadium for the wheelchair unveiling and Safe Trick-Or-Treat event, this year the high school staff decided to make Johnson his very own “movie.”
“My personal philosophy on 2020 and with my students is to try to not focus on the things we’re missing out on and try to focus on the opportunities that this new environment gives us,” Central Gwinnett Theater Teacher Michael Tarver said.
“So we really embraced the idea of making a movie this year. We wanted to do something different and make it special for DJ instead of him feeling like he missed out on something by doing it in 2020 instead of any other year. While it was a bummer not getting to work on this with my students like I normally get to, getting to work with a really close friend of mine and getting to work with the costume designer was awesome.”
Central Gwinnett brought in Fiona Leonard from Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern to design Johnson’s costume as well as Georgia Tech master’s student Eliot Kaplan to work on the electronics and coding on the wheelchair. They said it was their first time working on a “magic wheelchair.”
“It’s a really cool project,” Kaplan said. “I was really excited to make something that would make DJ excited, and then also as a technical challenge I got to learn a lot of really interesting new skills on the job. … Most of my experience is in code and not in electronics. That was really fun, and doing something nice for DJ was really exciting.”
Kaplan said the wheelchair comes with a touchscreen application to individually control 210 LED lights and also has seven different animations Johnson can choose from.
“I love, love, love Black Panther because he’s one of my favorites and he’s got all of the cool gadgets and team by his side,” Johnson said. “This is really awesome. I hope to go trick-or-treating in it.”
Titi said Johnson, who has Black Panther toys and clothes all over his room, spoke in his sleep the entire night prior to the event because of how excited he was to see the wheelchair.
“It’s so awesome and special,” she said. “He’s ecstatic. He’s always going around saying ‘Wakanda forever.’”
So when Rose-Houchins approached Johnson last spring to participate in the Magic Wheelchair program Johnson without hesitation said he wanted it to be Black Panther-themed.
“The best part every time is seeing the look on the student’s face when they see their costume,” Rose-Houchins said. “Getting to present this project to a student and seeing how their face lights up and everyone is here to cheer for them is just always such a moving and wonderful experience. That’s really a highlight of our year.”
Crews Middle School Assistant Principal Traci Baldwin said she is grateful for everyone who made the day special for Johnson.
“He is one of our favorites,” Baldwin said. “He has so much personality. We’re so glad he is part of our school, because he brings so much joy just with his smile every day. He’s special to all of us and we’re glad he was recognized with this honor. You can tell just from his smile how much he appreciates it — we all do.”
Tarver said they hope to upload the “movie” of the unveiling to YouTube by Halloween.