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#LIVINGPROOF

The difference you can make when you're all for health.

My Voice lets kids be heard

Kids typically have a lot to say. And 11-year-old Janessa is no exception.

But because she has verbal apraxia, she has a hard time expressing herself through words. Until recently, she couldn't communicate simple ideas like "I'm hungry" or "I have to go to the bathroom."

When she was selected to participate in the My Voice program through Variety®, the Children's Charity, supported by Highmark, everything changed. Variety gave her a portable communication device that could talk for her. So she could always have a voice.

Now, thanks to My Voice, Janessa can "talk" with her 4 older siblings and joke around like other kids her age. She can tell her parents what she wants to do, where she wants to go, how she feels, and what she likes and doesn't like.

And at doctor appointments, she can tell her doctor what hurts. Janessa also has Down syndrome and is a cancer survivor. So she needs to check in with her doctor regularly.

"I'm amazed by all the positives we've seen in her," said Janessa's mom, Julie. "The more she uses the device, the more confident she becomes."

Janessa is Living Proof that by giving a child the power to communicate, you empower them for life.

Opening doors

As a supporter of Variety, Highmark is committed to helping kids like Janessa live a full life. Since 2012, Highmark has contributed to the organization financially and through community outreach. Highmark was also a founding sponsor of Variety's My Bike program that donates adaptive bikes to eligible kids with disabilities.

"Highmark has opened doors for us," said Variety CEO Charles LaVallee. "Highmark is a catalyst of the growth and expansion of the My Voice program. If we can mobilize the community, we'll be able to identify more eligible kids."

LaVallee hopes to distribute the communication devices to at least 500 more children in 2018, starting with residents of central PA. They're currently available to eligible kids in 54 counties across Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Variety is also in search of individuals or corporations that will sponsor devices at $1,200 each, so they may help more children like Janessa.

Empowering kids for life

Before Janessa received her device, Julie didn't always know what her daughter was thinking. Now Janessa can use the tool to tell her mom she's tired and ready to leave school. And that she wants pizza for dinner.

The devices also help some children learn to say things without assistance. One of the most memorable moments for Julie was when Janessa first spoke the words, "I love you, Mommy!"

"I waited 10 years for her to be able to tell me that," she said.

These are the moments that drive LaVallee's passion for the My Voice program. He sees first-hand how it makes a difference in families' lives. And how the devices empower young people.

"We don't realize the liberating nature of being able to communicate," he said. "It helps maximize the children's potential to grow. For parents, the ultimate goal is to raise kids that are independent."

Adapted for children with special needs

My Voice devices are the size of a tablet and customized according to the unique needs of each child. They work with the help of a communication app installed on the device that is prescribed by a speech pathologist.

The apps typically feature a keyboard for spelling out words and pictures of commonly used words and phrases for quick access. Kids may also upload their own photos of family and friends to personalize their "speech." And they're able to type in and play back sentences, so everyone hears them.

Your child may be eligible

Although Variety awards many of the communication devices to families who live in poverty or have no disposable income, LaVallee said the income guidelines for eligibility are surprisingly high.

"People don't think they're eligible because they make too much. A family of 4 with an annual income of $123,000 is eligible," he said.

My Voice is for children and youth who:

Close collaboration

Highmark works closely with Variety to make My Voice and other programs available to families. Eligible children with disabilities can benefit from:

Highmark also hosts Variety's holiday party each year. It's an event where children with disabilities and their families can be together, be themselves, and be accepted for who they are.

Learn more about My Voice and how to apply.

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