Charity seeks to help area children with special needs
A 14-year-old girl with disabilities watched as nearly 10 adaptive bikes rolled off the truck one by one, and she glowed with anticipation to see her new bike for the first time.
“Of course, her bike was the last one to be unloaded, but when she saw it, she immediately exclaimed, ‘There she is! There she is!’” said Charles LaVallee, CEO of Variety – the Children’s Charity, which donated the customized bike to her. “When the bike got to her at the door, she said, ‘Charlie, I think I’ll call her Gorgeous.’ When you see these children, grinning ear to ear because they’re excited to ride their new bike, it’s just awesome. It’s just been revolutionary.”
LaVallee spoke with out Continuum Connect customer care team and asked them to think of who on their caseload could benefit from an adaptive bike, adaptive stroller, and/or communication device.
“It’s just about getting the word out, finding kids in our neighborhoods,” said Todd Edmunds, a regional account manager for Continuum, a CHC Solutions company, who serves on Variety’s board of directors. “As we all get older, we feel a pull to give back. I think, when people see this, it’s very hard to turn your back to it.”
Variety serves eligible children with disabilities throughout 53 Pennsylvania counties and 12 West Virginia counties through its three adaptive equipment programs, including My Bike® (adaptive bikes), My Stroller® (adaptive strollers), and My Voice® (communication devices). All equipment is provided at no cost to those who meet the program’s eligibility guidelines, which are much more liberal than most social service programs. For example, the program’s income requirements are five times higher than the federal poverty rate; e.g. a family of four making up to $128,750 a year is eligible for Variety’s programs.
LaVallee unreeled countless stories of impact from Variety’s programs. He spoke of two Pennsylvania children who received adaptive bikes.
“You couldn’t make this up – they were best friends from a Chinese orphanage, became adopted sisters in Titusville, Pa., Crawford County, and both got bikes from Variety in a bingo hall,” he laughed.
He also talked about a boy who has autism and was nonverbal when Variety gave him a communication device. Immediately after receiving the device, he used it to request two hot dogs and strawberry milk – the first time he’s ever requested what he wanted to eat. (“His grandfather said, ‘We didn’t know he liked strawberry milk!’”) The device made a dramatic difference in his communication, and he quickly went from no voice, to speaking through the device, to speaking with his VERY OWN VOICE. He recently sang “Last Christmas” – with his voice – in front of 500 people at Variety’s 2019 Gala.
LaVallee started his career with families in need after spending 10 years in a Presbyterian ministry. His friend Fred Rogers – a.k.a. Mr. Rogers, who also happened to be a Presbyterian minister – encouraged him to work with the uninsured and underinsured at Blue Cross of Western Pennsylvania.
“I told him, ‘Fred, that’s not the Cross I had in mind,’” he joked.
LaVallee’s work eventually led to the creation of a model in Western Pennsylvania that then became a model for Pennsylvania to serve uninsured children known as the CHIP program. That, in turn, became the model for the federal CHIP program that is funded by cigarette taxes.
Today, he raises funds and awareness by telling stories of impact, like the first time a disabled child took an adaptive stroller (provided by Variety) to the beach, and it enabled him to enjoy the ocean with his brother. Tears are rarely far behind.
“This is just an adaptive stroller – this is within our reach,” LaVallee said. “In the end, the question is, ‘Do we value these kids enough to do this?’”
For CHC Solutions, it’s a resounding yes.
“I’ve seen these kids get their bikes,” said Edmunds, the regional account manager who has served on Variety’s board for about four years. “The prevalence of kids out there who need our support is tremendous.”