Variety-The Children’s Charity is changing lives with its “My Voice” program, and it may go national

Variety-The Children’s Charity is known for providing adaptive bikes and strollers to kids with special needs around our region. Now, they’re trying to take their newest initiative — called “My Voice” — to a national scale.  These communication devices are specially-programmed iPads that speak for kids who are non-verbal or have difficulty talking.

Did you know thousands of kids use these devices to talk at school and with their therapist, but they can’t take their devices home? That means they can’t speak with their families and friends. The devices can be life-changing for kids and their families.

One local family learned this when they got one five years ago.

Tyler Winfield loves learning in 4th grade at West Point Elementary in Hempfield Township.

“He’s a lot of fun,” says Tyler’s teacher, Laurie Hamill. “He has a lot to bring to the classroom. He loves to participate. He’s energetic when he gets excited about a topic. We all know because he jumps up and down, and gets excited to tell us all about it, which is fantastic.”

On a recent visit, Tyler greeted me with the words “Hi. Hola. Konnichiwa.” He can now say “hello” in several languages, but just five years ago Tyler could barely say any words at all.

Tyler is an autistic person and was non-verbal until he began working with his communication device.

“He would cry, scream,” his mom, Jen Winfield, said. “Occasionally you would see him hit, bump his head, smack himself because he could not communicate to you what he actually wanted.”

In 2017, Tyler got a communication device from Variety and showed me how he used it. “What’s your favorite food?” I had asked him. Tyler pushed a button on his device that showed a picture of a hot dog, and the device said out loud, “hot dog.”

When I went back to visit Tyler the next year, he had learned to speak on his own with the help of his communication device. I asked him again, “Tyler, what’s your favorite food?” and he said on his own, without the device, “hot dog.” It was very emotional to see this progress, because I realized how much his life would be different, now that he could talk on his own.

He could go to school, have friends, relationships and a job.

Many children use a communication device in speech therapy and at school, but sadly, when they get home, without a device, they’re literally speechless.

“Part of me wants to say, honestly, ‘What do you mean he can’t take it home? He can’t talk to the most important people in his life – his mom, his dad, his sisters, his grandparents,'” says Charlie LaVallee, CEO of Variety-the Children’s Charity. “What could we be thinking?”

Variety has given away 1,800 of these communication devices to kids who are non-verbal or have difficulty speaking. Kids touch a picture or word and the device speaks for them, expressing anything from urgent needs like, “I need help” or “I’m hungry” to just being a kid.

Tyler makes his device say, “I love purple pop. It’s my favorite.”

Variety has support from major players including Gov. Tom Wolf, former Gov. Tom Corbett and United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, as well as major corporations like Highmark and PNC, to pay for the devices which cost $1200 each. That public-private partnership helped Variety expand the “My Voice” program to most of Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia.

Variety is trying to demonstrate that this model can work everywhere, and it needs to be a national priority. “Why can’t Western Pennsylvania light a spark that it grows and goes to America and other parts of the world?” LaVallee asks. “Why not?”

The communication device changed Tyler’s life, and it’s given a voice to thousands of children. I  asked Tyler, “Why do you think it’s important that kids be able to communicate?” He replied, in his own words without the device, “It can help you speak, and it can help them understand what you’re saying.”

His mom, Jen, added this: “Tyler, if he would never have had this chance, I don’t think he would be talking. And if you don’t try, you don’t know.”

You can get more information about how to get a communication device from Variety here. They provide devices to many families who are not considered low-income, so check the requirements to see if you qualify.

Want to learn more about Variety-The Children’s Charity? Check out this story on adaptive bikes.