Variety Blog

Variety KC Exploration Play – an All Inclusive Experience at the Kansas City Zoo

Setting the Standard – Inclusiveness at the Kansas City Zoo

The Need for Inclusiveness

Children with special needs, and all children, benefit tremendously from inclusive play. Participation and availability of activities can be challenging due to:

  • Sensory and social skill issues that can make public experiences difficult
  • Lack of truly inclusive opportunities at major attractions such as a zoo or park
  • Equipment and venues that are ADA compliant, but still pose hurdles to some individuals

As “inclusion” becomes more than a buzzword, organizations are rethinking the design and build of public projects. One such project is the partnership between the Kansas City Zoo (over a million visitors per year) and Variety KC (a not-for-profit providing equipment and opportunities for children with special needs).

The Grand Opening: Variety KC Exploration Play – an All Inclusive Experience

Friday, May 4th – 10:30 am at the Kansas City Zoo

Variety Supporter and Royals Pitcher, Danny Duffy will speak as representatives of Variety KC.

Accessible is not necessarily inclusive according to Deborah Wiebrecht, the Executive Director of Variety KC. No other Zoo in the nation has launched such an inclusive effort.

From the play surface, throughout each feature of the natural play area, every consideration has been made for absolute inclusiveness. The partnership started in 2017, as FOTZ was planning for a new Nature Play area at the Zoo, Variety KC was consulted in order to ensure the area’s features were inclusive to children with disabilities.

  • A zip line with companion harnesses so a parent or partner can accompany a child with special needs.  
  • An “elephant swing” that is accessible for children with special needs, but accommodates multiple children – encouraging engagement among all kids on the swing.
  • Special solid surfacing will allow children in power wheelchairs or using gait walkers to access all areas of the exhibit. (Although ADA accepted, a single piece of mulch from a mulched playground surface can damaging the mechanics of a $10,000 power wheelchair.)
  • Low sensory area for calming children and for breast-feeding mothers seeking privacy.
  • Special sensory kits with weighted blankets and noise canceling headphones are available for checkout.

Wiebrecht explains that the most important part of this effort is the social aspect of the play area. “Play time is the key time for children to learn to interact, to resolve conflict, and realize we’re all different. Because the majority of playgrounds and play areas are not inclusive, some children don’t often meet their peers with special needs. Inclusive opportunities like the zoo’s will allow peers to meet and play together, overcoming obstacles and differences together. This is how a caring community is created, this is how to raise open-minded, empathetic, and cooperative adults.”

The inclusiveness extends beyond children. This totally accessible and inclusive destination is also a benefit to grandparents who may be mobility challenged, or for a parent who may be a disabled veteran. “One out of four families has a member with a disability. Can you imagine excluding 25% of your friends from joining you?” asks Wiebrecht.

Additional Details

Everyone benefits from regular physical activity, especially children with special needs. Most disabilities can be accommodated with adaptive equipment or technique adjustments – the benefits are many:

  • Improvement in muscle strength, coordination, and flexibility.
  • Improved exercise endurance, cardiovascular efficiency
  • Better balance, motor skills and body awareness
  • Improved behavior, academics, focus, self-confidence
  • Experiences a sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction
  • Can increase appetite, improve quality of sleep
  • Decrease in secondary health complications like obesity, high blood pressure, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol and diabetes
  • Provides outlet for physical energy, helps them cope with anxiety, stress and depression
  • Offers opportunities to engage with “typical” friends and family members

Jill DeBok: 2016 Presidential Citation

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Variety KC was proud to nominate longtime Variety supporter Jill DeBok for the Presidential Citation. Her dedication is an amazing example of how, through engagement, a one-time volunteer can grow to become an important contributor and asset. For more than a decade, Jill has supported Tent 8, and has been a board member and volunteer for more than eight years, serving as board President in 2014.

Jill works for Pepsi America. She was first introduced to Variety through her client and Variety supporter Nancy Pagel, of the HyVee grocery stores. Initially, Jill was involved by providing donations, volunteering and attending events with Nancy, but Jill’s involvement grew over the years to include the board’s presidency.

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As the mother of a very active girl, Jill feels deeply for Variety Kids and their families. Her commitment has never wavered – not as she went back to school to pursue her masters, and not with increased responsibilities at work.  She also encourages her daughter to volunteer at events, raise funds and assist with starting Teen Variety KC.

Jill’s enthusiasm for Variety’s mission is demonstrated in the way she involves others. Working for a company that partners with major community events and organizations, Jill has opened many doors and exposed so many new partners, donors and volunteers to Variety. Being able to spread the Variety story is important for Jill, and through her, Tent 8 has been able to have messages displayed on the back of highly visible Pepsi trucks and at professional sports venues. Her influence doesn’t end at the Kansas/Missouri state lines; she shares her experiences with co-workers in other markets, encouraging them to seek out Variety tents in their own communities. Jill takes every opportunity to apply for community grants from Pepsi, recruit volunteers, provide products for numerous large scale events, and secure large corporate sponsorship for Variety fundraisers.

Her skill set and background includes the development of talent and leadership. Nowhere is that more evident than on the Variety Board of Directors. It was under her board involvement and leadership that Tent 8 saw some of its most successful years of growth and created a seven year strategic plan for sustainability. Even after stepping down from the presidency, Jill remains more passionate than ever, mentoring new members and engaging new volunteers.

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From donating soda, to donating time, to more than a decade of generously giving of her time and resources – Jill DeBok is the very definition of a Variety supporter. She explains it herself by saying, “it starts when you meet your first Variety Kid and see the life-changing impact that an adaptive bike or stander can make. And you want to see more of that…more smiling children, more parents with a bit of relief on their faces. For me, that was a bit of a honeymoon phase. After really getting involved with Variety, you realize these success stories don’t just happen. It takes work, it takes resources. For me, doing what it takes to make more of these happy endings happen – that is the greatest reward of all.”

It is for tremendous attitude and her contagious leadership style that Jill DeBok received the Variety International Presidential Citation Award.

See how you can get involved with Variety, too by visiting

North Star Academy Community Living


Variety works with partner organizations all over our area. As the newest initiative of the CLO Children’s Network, North Star Academy Community Living provides on-site services for individuals ages 5 to 22 with intellectual or developmental disabilities, aiming to “improve the quality of intervention services and enrich the lives of our students.” 13619978_1310472512296538_3792168157234976867_n

North Star Academy Community Living reached out for help in acquiring an adaptive bicycle. This bike would be used as a way for the individuals they serve to exercise and gain strength.

One gift, touching many lives. Variety is proud to be a good steward of our donor’s gifts, maximizing every dollar spent and spending less than ten percent on administrative costs. As a volunteer organization with just one full-time paid employee, we make sure the money you give gets to the children you want to help. Want to know more?

Meet the Kids: Christopher

Christopher editWhat would you do if you received a letter about a little boy named Christopher, who is both non-verbal and non-mobile, but can’t be in the social situations he craves because of transportation issues? Well, if you are Variety KC, blessed with wonderful donors and partners, you would secure an accessible van for Christopher so he could get all the joy he can out of his inclusion in activities and gatherings outside the home. 

Find out about other young lives you can affect at


Meet the Kids: Kylee

Kylee editCan you imagine if you were thirsty or in pain and could not tell someone? Could not get help or relief? The daily frustration of being or having a non-verbal child can be very stressful. And it is a quick fix! Ten-year-old Kylee just needs an $80 app to help her communicate – but $80 to a single mother of two might as well be eight thousand. Variety’s generous supporters get that! And they made sure Kylee got that app, and with it, the ability to communicate with her mother, brother and caregivers. The happiness app…because that’s what it brought to Kylee’s life!

Learn more about chances to bring happiness into the lives of kids at

Meet the Kids: Aayush

Aayush editFive-year-old Aayush has severe developmental delays and low muscle tone. It is a difficult cycle – he needs exercise to get stronger, but it is hard to find safe ways to exercise. One way is an adaptive tricycle. He tried one out at school and loves it. Having one at home not only gives him more chances to be active and gain strength; it gives him inclusion – inclusion and pride of riding around the neighborhood with the other kids.  

Variety friends and supporters believe every child should be active, be social and belong! If you believe that too, visit to help!

Meet the Kids: Torry

Torry editYoung Torry is autistic and non-verbal. The frustration of not being able to communicate has led to behaviors such as head banging and biting. Working with an iPad and appropriate apps, Torry is now communicating at school. And guess what? Less negative behaviors! Now Torry needs an iPad at home so he can be a successful communicator there, too! What a change it would make in both his life and his family’s. Variety is all about changing things for the better!

Join forces with Variety to make big changes for so many little members of our community at


Meet the Kids: Liam

Liam edit

Liam is both non-mobile and non-verbal, but clearly loves to be included in all life has to offer. The gift of an iPad would open up the world of communication for Liam. It would enhance his family life, make it possible to achieve more in therapy…and make life’s everyday challenges just a bit easier.

Variety helps kids like Liam to be included through mobility aids, communication assistance and inclusive opportunities.

Want to know more?


Meet the Kids: Avery

Avery editLittle Avery is the youngest of three boys. His older brother also has special needs. The cost of the much needed medical helmet for Avery is not covered by insurance and not possible due to other medical expenses. Avery’s family believes in giving back and volunteers for efforts whenever possible.

That’s what we love about our Variety families! With all they are challenged with…they love to help others.

Find out more about families like Avery’s at

Meet the Kids – Cole & Liam

Living with Ichthyosis Follicularis & Photophobia Syndrome

11737909_855181647898124_1566838239823215017_n1Brothers, Cole and Liam, were born with Ichthyosis Follicularis with Alopecia and Photophobia syndrome.  They have struggled with skin abnormalities, seizures that can’t be controlled with medication, very limited speech, delayed fine and gross motor skills, and no hair growth until age nine. It can be very difficult growing up looking different, talking different and walking different.   Inclusion is key. Inclusion expands their world and the lives of others they meet.

Liam Being able to get around, even at home, is challenging.  As the boys grow it becomes more difficult for their parents to assist and lift them up stairs.  A lift would make it possible for caregivers to safely assist Liam and Cole and it would assure their safety too.  They next time you run up the stairs, maybe even two stairs at a time, think of Liam and Cole….and how those stairs represent enormous hurdles. Help make their journey easier, visit the Variety Wishlist.




P.O. Box 3446 | Shawnee, KS 66203 | (913) 558-2309 |