Variety charity gives voice to Pittsburgh kids through specially programmed iPads

Kids left their schools in March without their books and whatever was in their lockers, thinking they would be back in a couple of weeks. But some kids also had to leave their voice.

Now, therapists are getting kids their voice back.

Five-year-old Liam Vespoli longingly looks out his family’s apartment window in Castle Shannon, waiting for his voice. Below, his speech-language pathologist, Kira Harbourne, is hand-delivering a communication device to his Mom.

“I’m so excited to finally be able to get this for him,” mom Mary Kate Vacca says.

Inside the package is an iPad programmed specifically for Liam so he can push a button and the device speaks.

Liam is autistic and can’t talk.

“It’s not that he doesn’t want to. It’s that he actually can’t form the words to tell you, and it just causes increased frustration.” Vacca says.

With the stay-at-home order, families like Mary Kate’s are trying to help kids without the in-person support of teachers and therapists.

Kira realized the parents needed help and the kids needed to communicate: “If someone told me, ‘Oh yeah, you’re just not going to be able to communicate for, I don’t know, three months or so,’ that would be awful.”

Charlie LaVallee is CEO of Variety the Children’s Charity which provided the communication device for free to Liam through their “My Voice” program. One of the silver linings from this pandemic is that speech-language pathologists are helping kids get these free communication devices to keep at home, not just for school.

“We have 58, nearly 60 devices on their way to kids right now throughout our 71 counties, which is really exciting,” LaVallee says. “Liam was the first, and I’ll always be grateful for that first moment.”

One of Liam’s favorite words on the device is “trampoline” which he got for his fifth birthday last week — a favorite gift, second only to the gift of his voice.

“It’s crazy to think that this little iPad, this communication device, can make such a big change.”

If you or someone you know could use a free communication device, go to Variety the Children’s Charity’s website.