KC Cares: Variety KC
When you plan your family outing to go to a playground or catch a baseball game, you’re probably thinking about sunscreen or parking. If your child has a disability, the equation becomes a lot more complicated.
You’ll need a surface a wheelchair can traverse, play equipment he or she can use, and above all, a bathroom that can accommodate a wheelchair or even an adult-sized changing table. Without those kinds of accommodations, families with a disabled member fade out of sight.
Variety KC is always trying to bridge that gap to make everyday things accessible to all.
“I was giving away wheelchairs and walkers, but I never saw kids in the community. And I thought, ‘Where are all these children and people who have special needs?’ Just listening to parents, it’s appalling that we live in a society built with barriers,” says Deborah Wiebrecht, executive director of Variety KC.
Wiebrecht has led the non-profit for 12 years, but it’s been around for 87. She’s the only paid staff member, overseeing numerous volunteers. One of the main ways she steers the work Variety KC does is by asking parents, “What would it take to make a difference, to get you to be included?”
Over the last decade, Variety KC has built 12 inclusive playgrounds all over the metro area, from Olathe, to Independence, to Raymore.
Working with venues all over the city such as the Kauffman Center, Children’s Mercy Park, and the Kansas City Zoo, Wiebrecht has pushed to install accessible bathrooms with large changing tables, sensory kits for those who get overwhelmed, and numerous other helpful tools.
She credits the parents of the kids Variety helps with using their voices to advocate for these changes.
The new KCI airport will feature a Variety KC inclusive play area, as well as a flight simulator and a sensory room, each dedicated to a Variety kid who has passed away.
Sports teams such as the Mavericks and the Royals have partnered with her to offer new opportunities for kids to get out and have fun, such as playing sled hockey, skating with walkers, or having a baseball camp.
It makes a big difference for people like Liberty resident Katie Minnick. Her 7-year-old son Nathaniel uses a wheelchair and is non-verbal.
“I kind of accepted it— the world doesn’t really accommodate my son. Then we moved here. I used to have to change my son in Virginia in the back of the car—no privacy, pouring down sweat,” Minnick says. “Here I know that, if I’m at the zoo, I know where the adapted bathrooms are. Because of what Variety’s done, they’ve made it so we can go to events.”
Though he loves being active, playing outside, and being around crowds, Nathaniel had never gotten to play on a slide or swings. Having that accessibility opened up to him was huge, and it didn’t stop there.
“At the baseball camp, my kid got to play a sport for the first time in his life, and we loved it. It was the best day out at Kauffman Stadium. You walk in, and they’re blowing bubbles, and they’re cheering your kid’s name,” Minnick says.
One of the biggest impacts on Nathaniel’s life has been the adapted bike Variety KC got for him.
“[It] has been completely life-changing. My son rides that bike three to four times a week. It’s been so fantastic for therapy. He rides his bike with his sister, who is typical. There is no way I could afford an adapted bike. These things run $10-15,000. Insurance never covers it,” Minnick says.
Variety KC takes applications for assistance to get mobility devices from all around the metro area for those under 21, with references from doctors and therapists.
“A little boy we just voted on this week has no arms and no legs. He just got prosthetic legs, so he’s going to try therapy horseback riding for the first time. So, we’re providing him that mobility saddle,” Wiebrecht says. “It’s an unusual request for us, but because that will help Henry build that trunk support, get his prosthetics going and get his cardiovascular exercise, we approved to fund his saddle.”
But having devices like the adapted bike or the mobility saddle is more than just a way to get out into the sunshine.
“[Nathaniel] gets to ride his bike [and be] with all the other kids, which is something that kids like my son don’t always get to experience because everything is therapy-related. Everything is a lot of work,” Minnick says. “He gets to just have fun, whether it’s on a playground, playing soccer, or going ice skating. There are so many different things that they do and provide for children, no matter what their abilities are.”
To make all these happen, Wiebrecht is constantly fundraising. Even though Variety is a national organization, all the money Variety KC raises stays here to help local kids.
Anytime there’s an event like the opening of a playground, she always needs volunteers of all ages.
“That’s when kids see the biggest change. When you interact with a Variety child, you form that friendship, and you form a bond. You see them for who they are and what their heart is like,” Wiebrecht says.
To sign up as a volunteer, go to varietykc.org/get-involved/volunteer