PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Variety - the Children's Charity is known for providing adaptive bikes and strollers to kids with special needs around our region, but they're trying to take their newest initiative called "My Voice" to a national scale. The communication devices are specially-programmed iPads that speak for kids who are non-verbal or have difficulty talking.
Did you know thousands of kids use these devices to talk at school and with their therapist, but they can't take their devices home? That means they can't speak with their families and friends. The devices can be life-changing for kids and their families, and one local family learned that when they got one five years ago.
Tyler Winfield loves learning in fourth grade at West Point Elementary in Hempfield Township.
"He's a lot of fun. He has a lot to bring to the classroom. He loves to participate. He's energetic when he gets excited about a topic. We all know because he jumps up and down and gets excited to tell us all about it, which is fantastic," teacher Laurie Hamill said.
"Hi. Hola. Konnichiwa," Tyler said to KDKA's Kristine Sorensen. He can say "hello" in several languages, but just five years ago, he could barely say any words at all. Tyler has Autism and was non-verbal.
"He would cry, scream," his mom Jen Winfield said. "Occasionally you would see him hit, bump his head, smack himself, because he could not communicate to you what he actually wanted."
In 2017, Tyler got a communication device from Variety and showed Kristine how he used it.
"What's your favorite food?" Kristine asked him. Tyler pushed a button on his device that showed a picture of a hot dog, and the device said out loud, "hot dog".
Kristine went back to visit Tyler the next year, and he had learned to speak on his own through the help of his communication device. She asked him again, "Tyler, what's your favorite food?" and he said on his own, without the device, "hot dog". Kristine got choked up with emotion because she realized how much his life would be different, now that he could talk on his own. He could go to school, have friends, relationships, a job.
Many children use a communication device in speech therapy and at school, but sadly, when they get home, without a device, they're speechless.
"Part of me wants to say, honestly, 'what do you mean he can't take it home? He can't talk to the most important people in his life – his mom, his dad, his sisters, his grandparents. What could we be thinking?'" Charlie LaVallee, CEO of Variety - the Children's Charity, said.
Variety's given away 1,800 of these communication devices to kids who are non-verbal or have difficulty speaking.
Kids touch a picture or word and the device speaks for them, from urgent needs like, "I need help" or "hungry" to just being a kid. Tyler makes his device say, "I love purple pop. It's my favorite."
Variety has support from major players including Governor Tom Wolf, former Governor Tom Corbett and United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, as well as major corporations like Highmark and PNC, to pay for the devices which cost $1,200 each.
That public-private partnership helped Variety expand the "My Voice" program to most of Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. Variety is trying to demonstrate this model can work everywhere, and it needs to be a national priority.
"Why can't western Pennsylvania light a spark that it grows and goes to America and other parts of the world? Why not?" LaVallee said.
The communication device changed Tyler's life, and it's given a voice to thousands of children.
Kristine asked Tyler, "Why do you think it's important that kids be able to communicate?"
He replied, in his own words without the device, "It can help you speak, and it can help them understand what you're saying."
His mom, Jen, added, "Tyler, if he would never have had this chance, I don't think he would be talking. And if you don't try, you don't know."
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