Jan Albus considers Variety the Childen’s Charity of St. Louis her 14,000-member family. As executive director and a national board member, she leads the nonprofit in helping children with physical and mental disabilities reach their full potential.
Since taking the helm of the local chapter in 1995, Albus has strived to carry on that mission by spearheading multiple new programs in an effort to serve the whole child—mentally, physically and emotionally—and be the “go-to organization” for parents with children who have disabilities. “The greatest part of my everyday job is making a difference in the lives of children who may not necessarily come to us with a lot of hope, and many times aren’t given much of a chance because of their disability,” Albus says. “We try to unlock that ability and present great opportunities for these kids.”
When Albus was first contacted about the executive director position, she jumped at the chance to work with the signature St. Louis charity. As a St. Louis native, she was familiar with the organization through its largest fundraiser, the Variety Telethon. “I thought I could give about four years, but I’m now in my 18th year—there’s just all these things to get done.”
Children come to Variety with disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy to serious injuries following accidents. In response, Variety offers educational, therapeutic and developmental programs. Albus has led the charity to introduce new programs, including Variety Children’s Theatre, where the organization’s kids star in classic Broadway productions each October at Touhill Performing Arts Center; and Adventure Camp, which offers kids with disabilities a safe way to perform physical activities, such as ice-skating, rock-climbing and swimming. Other new programs include Kids on the Go Mobility, which serves more than 1,500 area families with equipment such as wheelchairs, augmentative speech devices, leg braces, hearing aids, prostheses and van lifts; and THER-HAPPY Kids, to ensure children not only have the medical equipment they need, but the therapy to support them while they use it. “It’s very important because many times Variety is the last resort when insurance has run out. Insurance will cover about nine therapy sessions, and a typical child with cerebral palsy, for example, needs 100 therapy sessions,” Albus explains.
Through the programs, kids are living more active, fulfilling, longer lives, she continues. “We have seen kids who have improved muscle development through our therapy bikes. And we now have wheelchairs that stand a child straight up, allowing their organs to function as they should be.” This support is helping kids beat the odds, such as one boy with cerebral palsy who is surviving years past typical life expectancy estimates. Variety also helped another patient realize her dream of becoming a doctor. The medical school graduate was given a $13,000 electric arm and is now a practicing physician.
So don’t count these kids out, Albus says, because they have great potential. “If you look at Variety children, they’re always smiling. They seem to know when people really care,” she notes. “And everyone here really cares. We are just one, big 14,000-person family.