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North Hills Monthly

How Does Variety the Children’s Charity Provide Inclusive Opportunities for Kids with Special Needs?

Nov 30, 2015 06:11PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
In 1928, a woman left a child in a seat at the Sheridan Theater in East Liberty, home of the Variety Club performers, with a note requesting that the Variety Club actors care for the child. The child was eventually adopted, but her story prompted donations from across the region, ultimately leading to the present day organization, Variety the Children’s Charity. Almost 90 years later, the nonprofit is still going strong, with a focus on providing adaptive bikes, strollers and communication devices for children with special needs. Chief Executive Officer Charlie LaVallee, who prefers the term Chief Excitement Officer, is passionate about the organization.

North Hills Monthly: Is Variety, the Children’s Charity, local to Pittsburgh?
Charlie Lavallee: It started here, but we now have 44 chapters, including 20 outside of the United States. Locally, the program has gone from 10 to 39 western and central Pennsylvania counties, and we’ve expanded our geography to 10 West Virginia counties and several around Harrisburg.

NHM: How has the mission of the organization evolved over the years?
Lavallee: It started out with a child who was orphaned and grew over time to focusing on kids with disabilities, both physical and intellectual, who are 21 and under. Over time, it became more of a traditional social service organization. We provide unique programs, experiences and equipment so that these children may live life to the fullest. My Bike is the signature program, though we also have a My Stroller and a My Voice program. The top three diagnoses of kids who receive adaptive bikes are autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.

NHM: What does Variety do to help remove barriers facing these children?
Lavallee: Kids with disabilities aren’t able to have childhood experiences that typical kids have, like riding a bike. They wind up being left out, left behind, watching siblings and friends doing something they very much want to do themselves. But that’s not necessary. They can participate. The bikes are customized and individually tailored to the kids. We work with physical and occupational therapists that tell us what each child needs, and the kids get to pick out the color of their bikes.

NHM: What are some of the adaptive technologies used?
Lavallee: A lot of kids have tone issues; they can’t keep their feet on the pedals. All of the pedals have Velcro foot straps. There are also lateral braces against the side, so kids can sit upright. Some have rear steering bars connected to the handlebars, so mom or dad can help steer the bike. Some bikes may need a front guide bar. It’s based on the challenges of the child, and we build them to successfully enable them to ride and pedal the bike safely, with the right accessories.

NHM: What are the income eligibility requirements?
Lavallee: I wanted to have higher income guidelines so we could get lower and middle-income families. Our guidelines are four times higher than that of the federal poverty level. A lot of middle-income people have other expenses; they don’t have disposable income, and every day they are pressed. An $1,800 bike becomes out of the question. Nineteen percent of our families have income below the poverty level.

NHM: How many bikes have been given out?
Lavallee: To date, over 1,000 have been sponsored. We had almost $2 million of adaptive bikes that have been developed; that is a tribute to the community. Sometimes we go in spurts: too many bikes or too many kids. Currently, we have 100 bikes that have already been sponsored; we’re looking for kids to give the bikes to.

NHM: Do you hold events for these kids?
Lavallee: Yes, through our Peak Moments program, which is called that because these are the peak moments of a child’s life. We have a Halloween parade, a holiday party, and a Labor Day parade. We also have some smaller events, such as going to Penguins games, for example. These are very important moments for the families.

NHM: How do you think having a bike can be transformative for a child?
Lavallee: Inclusion is so important. It builds our self-esteem—to belong, to be accepted, to be included. A bike gives them the competency that they can do it, and the joy they get out of having a bike is unparalleled! For example, these kids get to ride in the Labor Day parade. Before, they couldn’t even get to the parade, now they’re in it! These kids are getting the typical experiences that everybody else has. When you see these kids ride out, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. The kids feel happy and proud, and isn’t that what all parents want for their kids?

NHM: It sounds as if the charity has been transformative for you, too.
Lavallee: I’m blessed to be a part of this and to be a part of this team. What we’re really about—we’re trying to give kids with disabilities the chance to live life to the fullest, but we’re also giving them opportunities to discover their possibilities.

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