Parents try hard to give their children the best possible life, a task made even more challenging when a child is physically or mentally disabled. “Sarah suffered a five-hour seizure when she was 3 years old, and she’s had a brain injury ever since,” says Sandy Smith, Sarah’s mother. “At the time she was hospitalized for four months, and the medical bills were unbelievable.” On top of that, the family needed a wheelchair, physical therapy, and other specialized equipment and services for Sarah. “To say we were at wits’ end would be an understatement,” Smith recalls. “To have suffered such a blow with our daughter, and then have to deal with the financial consequences, was completely overwhelming.”
That’s when Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis stepped in. “They provided us with a wheelchair, and that was just the beginning,” Smith says. “Over the past five years, Variety also provided us with a wheelchair lift, bath chair, a feeder seat, a therapeutic stander and a Lite Gait system, which has helped Sarah begin to relearn how to walk.”
Variety is there for thousands of St. Louisans like Sarah each year. “Our mission is to serve children with physical and mental disabilities whose needs would not be met were it not for Variety’s sustained commitment,” says executive director Jan Albus. “We’ve been helping these kids reach their full potential for more than 75 years.” The organization does this by focusing on four key areas, Albus explains: providing medical equipment for mobility and independence, creating unique recreational and therapeutic programs, funding 85 partner programs, and raising awareness about children with disabilities in the St. Louis community.
Variety has 50 chapters in 14 countries, “but the St. Louis branch is recognized as an international leader, raising more than $3.5 million annually to help local kids and their families,” Albus says. “Every cent that’s raised here, stays here. It goes to the kids who need it most, the ones who usually fall through the cracks because they don’t have insurance, or don’t have enough insurance or don’t qualify for Medicaid. Insurance companies often don’t pay for medical equipment. Families come to us after they’ve exhausted every other option. We are the charity of last resort.”
The need is growing. “There are more than 100,000 school-age children with spina bifida, cerebral palsy, autism, and other physical and mental disabilities in the St. Louis metro area, and more are born each day,” Albus says. “They need help from our community to become the most productive, independent adults they can be.” As medical costs rise and insurance coverage shrinks (or disappears, along with jobs), parents are left with tough choices that no one should have to make: food or medicine? Wheelchair or car? 401(k) savings or surgery? “Variety helps remove some of the sting from these choices by providing medical equipment and key therapy programs that these children need.”
Variety is unique in that it’s the only local agency that helps young people until age 21, to ensure they’re outfitted for a productive adulthood. “We help whenever one of our kids is in need, whether it’s six months or 10 years down the line,” Albus says. “When private insurance and Medicaid are slow to respond, we guarantee payment on the equipment with vendors, cutting through red tape to make sure families receive help as soon as possible.“ With help from its partner agencies and in-house programs, such as Bikes for Kids and Variety Adventure Camp, the kids take huge steps forward. “Last year, Variety granted nearly $900,000 to local agencies that directly affect the lives of kids with disabilities,” she notes. “We also fund 12-passenger vans known as Sunshine Coaches for various agencies, to help kids get to their doctor appointments, therapy sessions and special outings and activities.”
Maybe the most important thing Variety does is give children with disabilities a fundamental human joy: the belief that they can achieve their dreams. “We help them say ‘I can!” by giving them what they need to succeed,” Albus says. Sandy Smith, Sarah’s mother, agrees. “Variety has been there for our family from the very beginning, and they still are.”