By Amaris Castillo

acastillo@lowellsun.com

DRACUT -- On the evening of their annual tradition, Roberta Hamelin helps her daughter Kathy down the porch steps.

"Papa!" Kathy cries, reaching out to her father, Richard. He grabs onto her white-gloved hand. Dressed as Buddy the Elf this year, Kathy sits in her wheelchair and gladly accepts the jack-o-lantern candy bucket she refuses to part with. String has replaced its long-broken handle. The pumpkin's nose has thinned from old age. Kathy doesn't speak much save for a few words, but her face and body language say plenty: she's overjoyed.

It's Halloween, the night her parents say she looks forward to every year.

The holiday that ranks higher than even Christmas, with its guaranteed sweets and a chance for Kathy -- who has cerebral palsy -- to greet neighbors. A time to show off the costume her mother sewed for her.

For decades, Richard has faithfully taken his daughter around their Dracut neighborhood to trick-or-treat. Kathy is now 49.

"Rain, sleet, snow. Doesn't make a difference," says Roberta, 75. "They're out there."

Just after 6 p.m., father and daughter step out into the dark of Sunset Road and turn left. Richard, 75, pushes Kathy's wheelchair as she waves at other trick-or-treaters. She points out her rosy cheeks to next door neighbor, Kerri Thyne, then continues down the street with her dad to the home of Carla and Rich Proia.


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Carla smiles when she sees Kathy in her green fleece suit with large white buttons and yellow pants.

"It's Buddy the Elf, right? My favorite," Carla tells Kathy. "Take a couple. We have plenty of candy."

Kathy smiles and signs "thank you."

She holds out her hand. She wants to show off the jingle bells on her glove.

Soon, they're at the home of neighbor Edward Dubois, who gives Kathy candy. Father and daughter thank him. She shows off her gloves again.

"Yep. You got your bells on. You're all set," Richard says. "Wanna go see Rita?"

Next up on Richard and Kathy's Halloween route is the driveway of Rita and Gary Bryand.

"Hey there! Happy Halloween! How are you?" Rita asks Kathy. "You look wonderful. I like it."

Kathy points to parts of her costume.

"Jingle, jingle," Rita says with a wide smile. She asks if the costume is new and drops a theater box of Reese's Pieces in Kathy's pumpkin.

Kathy thanks her and looks over at the Bryands' Bernese Mountain dog, Clover. She reaches over to pet her.

"It's always a highlight," Rita says of seeing Kathy on Halloween. "Everybody loves to see you trick-or-treating, huh? It's fun for all of us."

Richard later moves the Reese's Pieces box to a bigger bag hanging on the back of Kathy's wheelchair since her old pumpkin can only carry so much. As they continue down Sunset Road, Richard says it's a shame so many of their older neighbors have passed on or moved. There was a woman at the end of the street who used to give Kathy gingerbread cookies. He hears she has since moved into a nursing home.

At each home they stop by, Kathy proudly shows off her homemade costume to the delight of neighbors. The hat, the buttons, the pants.

"She loves it. She just loves putting these things on," Richard says. "When we go out with her, it's showing everybody what she's got on. She's very conscious of getting dressed up."

It began when Kathy was about 2 years old. Her father wanted to surprise his wife, so he went to a nearby store and picked up a large paper bag. He cut a hole on the bottom, two holes on the sides, and pulled it over his baby girl. Wrote "Boo" on the front in black marker and drew lines on her little face for good measure.

"I didn't know whether he was nuts or what," Roberta recalls with a laugh. "She was cute as a button, though."

"That's when it started," Richard says.

Since then, Roberta has pieced together costumes every year for their daughter. Kathy's been a pirate, a nun, a French chef, a clown, a jester. A cowgirl with a pink vest made of felt and bordered with rickrack trim. "Mommy was lazy that year," Roberta confesses. 

More than once, Kathy has gone trick-or-treating as Donald Duck, Walt Disney's famous anthropomorphic duck. That costume was almost a mistake, Roberta notes, because it was padded and didn't fit into Kathy's wheelchair.

"She loves them," Roberta says of her daughter's affinity for handmade costumes. "That's why we do half the stuff we do here."

It's now shortly past 6:30 p.m. and Richard and Kathy have already made a right onto Westwood Road and another sharp right on Springdale Road. Her haul has grown to Kit Kats, fun sized M&M's, Twix, and more.

The town's trick-or-treating hours are over at 8 p.m. Richard knows what his daughter will do when they get home: dump her Halloween sweets on a table and start matching them.

Skittles with other Skittles, Snickers with Snickers, Kit Kats with other Kit Kats.

She loves to match things.

Roberta says she thought they'd be done taking Kathy trick-or-treating by the time she reached her teen years. But she predicts that will never happen.

"She enjoys Halloween, the costumes, the trick-or-treating, the people she meets out there. All her friends," Richard says earlier that evening. "So, as long as we can do it, we do it, huh?"

Kathy smiles from under her pointed hat.

"Yah," she says, giving her father a sharp nod.

"So as long as we're able, we'll keep doing this," Richard says. "We'll costume her up and go off to trick-or-treating one more night."

His wife looks over at their daughter.

"One more," she says.

Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo