Charity gives kids a 'voice'
Tyler Winfield was already formulating his drink order as he and his family drove to a restaurant this month, so that by the time they arrived he was able to order a root beer. When the drinks came, he was able to tell the waiter his food order.
What would seem like an everyday occurrence would be difficult for Tyler, 5, because of a developmental delay that left him mostly nonverbal. But he was able to communicate with the restaurant staff and his family through a specialized iPad paid for by the United Steel Workers and donated to his family through Pine-based Variety, the Children's Charity .
On Tuesday, Tyler was the spokesman and model for 10 other children with special needs who received communications devices at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, shortly after five others were awarded adaptive bikes or strollers outside on the courthouse plaza in downtown Greensburg.
"If he wants something and we can't understand him, we say, 'Hey, Tyler, type it in your device,' " said Tyler's father, Nate Winfield of Trafford. "I can actually hear him come up and say, 'I love you,' and I can be, 'I love you, too, buddy.'"
Tyler demonstrated how, by tapping photos and icons on his screen, he can form sentences that an application on his device speaks aloud. His family can add words to his vocabulary by taking pictures of people or things and adding them to the app, or he can type them out on a keyboard as he learns to spell, said his mother, Jen.
The Winfields said working with the device has expanded Tyler's vocabulary as he speaks aloud to imitate what's coming out of the speakers, with his voice advancing from the level of a 1- or 2-year-old to a 3-year-old in the two months he's had it.
Charles LaVallee, CEO of Variety, said the USW paid for Tyler's device eight weeks ago and 25 others that will be distributed first to any union members' families, then to others in the community who apply through Variety's "My Voice" program.
He noted that many kids who are nonverbal or delayed might get communications devices through their schools or speech therapists, but budget and time limitations can force them to share the devices or leave them when they go home, restricting their ability to "talk" to a few hours or less each day.
"It enables kids to talk about their thoughts, their feelings, their needs; it eases the frustration that's going on when you can't communicate," LaVallee said. "Every child should have a voice, and they should have a voice all the time."
Stephen Wood, 17, of Rostraver received an iPad Tuesday and was already tapping away at it before he left, using it to talk about a "field trip."
"It helps us to understand him so we're not getting frustrated asking him over and over again what he's saying," said Stephen's sister, Mackenzie, 15. His mother, Stephanie, said Stephen's speech therapist recommended they apply for a device through Variety since he was doing so well with one in therapy.
"We all have something to say, and some of us might need a little help doing it," said County Commissioner Ted Kopas, who has a son who uses a similar communications device. "At the end of the day, we all have important things to say, whether it's wants or needs, or just to say, 'I love you.' "
Rugged cases protect the iPads, though Variety also pays for a two-year warranty through Apple. The cases have a hinged handle and an adjustable strap to make them easy to hold and carry. Between the iPad, case, apps and support, each costs about $1,200, which Variety funds through donations, foundations and charities.
Variety also gave away two adaptive bikes, customized for each child's disability, and three "strollers" intended to help families move around with a child where a wheelchair would be too cumbersome. Kopas and Tyler's family led the group on a "parade" on the plaza outside the courthouse.
"These were kids who were sitting on their porch watching their brothers and sisters and friends ride bikes, and they were left out," LaVallee said.
LaVallee said Variety accepts applications from a range of families, from those who are below the federal poverty line to families that make up to four times as much — about $98,000 for a family of four, he said.
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836- 6660, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @msantoni.