PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Some children across Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia are able to speak for the first time using a device from "Variety, The Children's Charity."
Now, they're starting an effort to identify and get a device to every child who needs one – starting in the Pittsburgh area and expanding.
A Kidsburgh story KDKA reported on Variety's "My Voice" speaking devices right before Christmas of 2018 has become a much bigger story with 2.7 million views on Facebook now.
It was about Tyler Winfield, who is spreading the word about the "My Voice" by singing to Charlie Lavallee, who runs Variety -- the charity that gave him his voice.
Tyler, who has autism, got a special iPad to help him speak, and he was asked what his favorite food is.
"Hot dog," the device said after Tyler touched a photo of a hot dog.
A year and a half later, Tyler learned to talk completely on his own.
The progress made was overwhelming. Tyler can now say the words from his own mouth.
"I remember the last time I met you. Now I'm gonna get choked up," KDKA's Kristine Sorensen said. "You had to push a button to say 'hot dog', and now you're saying it."
"We never in a million years would have imagined it would go from him receive device to him talking now," said Tyler's mother Jennifer Winfield.
Now, Variety is expanding who qualifies for a speaking device to from age 4 to ages 3 through 21. They're also upping the income guidelines, so a family of four who makes up to $128,750 qualify for a free device.
Charlie Lavallee, CEO of Variety, says, "We're definitely finding people don't know that the process is so easy. They can apply and work with the speech language pathologist they are already seeing it. They need to get by this assumption that it's too good to be true and apply."
Variety is hoping to establish a model in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia showing that all kids who need a speaking device can get one, then scale it up across the state and the country.
In fact, Lavallee did that with the Children's Health Insurance Program, CHIP, which started here in Western Pennsylvania and went nationwide. They say if children deserve health insurance, they also deserve a voice.
Leo Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers, said, "It could become nationwide. There's no reason why a kid that could grow to speak and be mobile shouldn't be given the opportunity."
Gerard has helped raise $500,000 for Variety to provide devices to more than 500 kids, including Jacob Buchheit. He uses the adaptive stroller to get around and the speaking device to tell jokes and make friends. LaVallee said the speaking device has allowed Buchheit to connect with people who he otherwise would never have met.
"They realized they made assumptions about him that weren't right," said LaVallee. "They didn't realize how funny he was and how intelligent he was. He just needed a way to communicate it."
His mom, Eileen, recalled a time when her son became part of a conversation about a love of rollercoasters and how Jacob showed a photo and spoke through his special I-pad from Variety.
"He would have never been included in that conversation, and that's everything to me," she said, wiping away tears.
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