CLARION — A Pittsburgh-area man took Mr. Rogers’ advice and transformed his own tragedy into something good. Charles LaVallee, CEO of Variety Pittsburgh, is on a mission to bring mobility and communication to Pennsylvania children facing a variety of physical challenges.
He and his team brought their traveling road show to the Ramada Inn, Clarion, last Tuesday, presenting bikes, strollers and voice-assist devices to area youngsters.
LaVallee lost two close family members in a fatal traffic accident a few years ago. While he was still dealing with his own grief, his friend, the late children’s television host Fred “Mister” Rogers, advised him to turn it into something that would benefit other people.
LaVallee had been engaged in the Presbyterian ministry for several years and was floored by Rogers’ advice. Taking another piece of advice from his friend, he decided to do something good for children.
The result was the formation of Variety Children’s Charity of Pittsburgh, and the first MyBike campaign followed. Soon, the MyStroller and MyVoice initiatives followed. Seven years after the formation of the charity, LaVallee is on the road constantly – and loving every minute of it.
“We are in 64 Pennsylvania and West Virginia counties now,” LaVallee said. “All our adaptive equipment is free to eligible kids and their families.”
Income guidelines are very generous, and a family with a qualifying child between the ages of 3 and 21 is eligible to receive an adaptive bike, stroller, voice device or a combination of all three if necessary. The guidelines are based on income and the number of people in the household, starting at $84,500 for a household of two and going all the way up to $217,000 for a household with eight or more members.
The bikes cost in the neighborhood of $1,800, the strollers $1,500 and the voice devices $1,200. Families having children with special needs often experience higher medical costs, which would put the adaptive devices out of their financial reach if it were not for Variety.
All the devices are funded by public donations.
“Kids with special needs often get left out of the pure fun of having bikes that they are able to ride,” LaVallee said. “Thanks to our partner, Blackburn’s, the bikes are retooled with some adaptive features that get kids out where the fun is.”
Along with the bikes, specialized strollers are available. Lighter in weight than wheelchairs and easier to fold up and stow in a trunk, the strollers make life easier for parents and other caregivers. The ease of use means that taking a child with special needs on an outing becomes more doable.
The MyVoice device allows children having difficulties with communication to tell their caregivers and teachers what they need or what difficulties they may be having.
LaVallee said, “Before one boy received his MyVoice, it took three days and that many doctors to find out that he had a broken leg. I cannot imagine my grandchild being in pain for three days without anybody knowing what was wrong.”
During last Tuesday’s event, there were smiles instead of pain. The bikes were unloaded from Blackburn’s trailers, wheeled into a meeting room at the Ramada and presented to the 15 or so children in attendance. LaVallee and his staff took great care in lining everyone up for a parade down through the lobby and down a hallway to the Riverview Intermediate Unit 6 in-service meeting taking place in a conference room.
LaVallee led the way on his own bike, guiding the new bike riders on two circuits of the meeting room. Along with the expected cheers and hand clapping, there was an outbreak of bubble-blowing in the front row.
But the children, all smiles, were more intent on just riding their very own bikes.