By Leanna Walters
If you’ve seen a movie at the B & B Theatre in the last several months, you’ve probably seen an ad during the previews about a drink and popcorn special benefitting Variety KC, and featuring LQ member, Deb Wiebrecht, Executive Director of Variety KC for the past eight years.
It is the mission of Variety KC to supply specialized equipment to a variety of kids with a variety of special needs in the Kansas City area. Currently, this includes children with 73 different disabilities, and the equipment is not inexpensive.
Adaptive bikes start at $2,500; adaptive wheelchairs, $10,000; iPads with special apps run around $1,000. Needless to say, fund raising is a huge part of Deb Webrecht’s job.
So, how does she manage with a staff of one (herself)?
She hates to say no
When insurance won’t cover an item, Variety is often the last resort for families. “When a family puts a hand out for help, it’s humbling and terrifying,” Deb says. “To say no would be to say no to hope.” Her inability to say no keeps her motivated.
She seeks out and nurtures her volunteers and partners
She constantly spreads the word about Variety KC, seeking out suppliers of adaptive bikes, van modifications and other specialized equipment; partnering with other non-profit funding organizations; helping arrange fundraising events and inspiring volunteers to use their talents and creativity to raise funds.
Since Variety got its start in the 1920s as an organization centered around entertainers, she continues to tap into the Kansas City performing arts and celebrity scene, continuing a long tradition of yearly variety shows.
Deb tells the story of receiving a phone call in the middle of the night from Danny O’Neill, founder of Roasterie Coffee. He was on a motorcycle trip and atop a mountain in Lebanon (hence the time difference). Danny told her he found his experience so inspiring, he wanted to personally arrange a fund-raising motorcycle ride from Kansas City to the Arctic Circle in Alaska with a goal of raising $25,000 to purchase 25 adaptive bikes for kids.
She loves the kids like they’re her own
On a recent Saturday in January, Deb was asked to speak at the funeral of Vicki, one of “her kids” (as she often refers to the kids she works with) who had herself become a volunteer as she became a young woman. Deb considered it the biggest honor of her professional career.
She thrives on local and national “firsts”
Thanks to a specially equipped iPad, a young, non-vocal girl can engage in conversations through typing. The person with whom she’s conversing actually hears the questions and responses as the voice of an age appropriate girl through a text-to-voice app–a first in the KC area.
A program using harnesses and an overhead grid allowed children to play upright at Legoland tables at Crown Center as part of a first-ever pilot program. When the new BE Smith Children’s Center is complete at Shawnee Mission Medical Center, the entire building will feature a built-in harness system, thanks to Variety KC.
A little boy in Shawnee with a limb deficiency now has a 3-D arm.
Students at the Barstow School partner with engineering students to custom-adapt battery powered cars to some of the youngest Variety kids. The program fits in with Barstow’s STEAM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math) while reinforcing diversity, tolerance and acceptance.
The Variety KC story doesn’t stop with supplying equipment. Deb realizes special needs kids want to be able to play with able-bodied kids. “They don’t want to be defined by their differences,” she stresses. So beyond supplying equipment to help level the playing field, Deb also works to create playing fields where all kids can play together.
• Variety has funded two adaptive and inclusive baseball diamonds, three playgrounds (Independence, Leawood Park, Tiffany Hills) and another in the works in Olathe.
• Variety is working with Children’s Mercy Hospital to make their downtown playground inclusive.
• Working with the Mavericks hockey team, Variety KC has provided sleds and adaptive walkers at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence that kids can check out and use for free.
Meet several of ‘Deb’s kids’ (from her blog at Varietykc.org)
Just look at this photo of Dominique on his first day of school! He is a young guy full of promise and yet struggles with some of the challenges of being on the autism spectrum. His teachers noticed a behavioral change and sense of excitement when Dominique was exposed to technology. He is successfully using an iPad at school and really opening up and moving forward in his learning. Having an iPad at home would help Dominique to engage and communicate more at home with his family, it would also provide a way for him to engage with friends. There are so many ways we can facilitate inclusion, and communication is such an important one.
Landon has Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy. He also has a tremendous amount of spirit and energy! He primarily uses a wheelchair and sometimes a walker for mobility, but an adaptive bike would give him so much more than that – it would give him independence and opportunities for inclusion. This year Variety KC held a bike drive radiothon with 102.1 and funded bikes for so many excited Variety Kids. Then Danny O’Neill from The Roasterie took a fundraising ride to Alaska and funded even more! Let’s make sure every child gets a chance to Be Active, Be Social, and Belong – on a bike!
Natalya survived a stroke at the age of two weeks and now she has weakness on the right side of her body. She’s a bright and social little girl who just wants to keep up with her peers! Natalya received her bike because of generous Variety KC donors who understand how important a bike is for inclusion and in Natalya’s case, for physical strengthening too.
Gabe has so many physical limitations, but is smart as a whip and very socially and mentally aware. His physical limitations restrict activities and he spends too much of his time as an observer. An adaptive bike would allow him to ride along during family walks and would greatly broaden his horizons. That’s what Variety KC Donors wanted for Gabe too! So, at the recent radiothon for bikes, enough money was raised to buy so many deserving kids an adaptive bike. . . including Gabe.
If you wish to meet more of Deb’s kids, or to find out how to become involved with Variety KC, please visit VarietyKC.org