Flying High

Leslie Carto is a mom.
Before that, she was pretty darn smart. She even won an Emmy for her work as a television news reporter.
Leslie served on the board of directors for the Kansas City chapter of Variety Children’s Charity for nearly two years.
Along with her (patient) husband, Rusty, Leslie is in charge of raising four-and-a-half year old, Will, and two-and-a-half year old Francie.
Besides writing, Leslie spends her time pondering important issues: like what 1980’s pop hit would be blaring from convention hall speakers if she accepted her party’s nomination to run for President of the United States…or what her wish might be if a genie ever popped out of a bottle.
Leslie hopes that each post she writes will someday serve as love letters to her children:

There’s just something about that flight.Once again I sat on a Chicago-bound airplane, about 30,000 feet above the earth, when the tears started flowing. It’s nothing new. I have been crying on that hour-long flight from Kansas City to Chicago for years. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the airlines put me on some sort of ‘emotional wreck’ watch list.
I was pretty comfortable in seat 14-C. My two-and-a-half-year-old precocious daughter sat next to me in the window seat. And across the aisle was Will: my stunningly handsome preschooler. The airlines didn’t put anyone else in our row (again, evidence of ‘the list’). Will sat next to the window so he could lift and lower the shade. His seatbelt remained buckled. He finally gave up trying to push the overhead ‘call button’. Will knows his limits; even with the help of his plastic Iron Man, he was too short. He occasionally kicked the seat in front of him, but luckily the man in that seat was friendly and graciously accepted our (make that, ‘my’) apologies. As Will sat gazing out onto the Midwestern sky… probably over some hard working farmer’s crops… it hit me. He was sitting nicely. Quietly. He was working on some sort of imaginary play. Maybe it just was the fact that his toy raised its arms when he squeezed the legs– more ’cause-and-effect’ than ‘play’– but it kept him busy. It looked typical, ‘normal’. Sitting in 14-A he could be any kid. But he wasn’t. He was, is, my Will. And just like that farmer, he and I have toiled very, very hard to get to this point.

Three years earlier Will and I were on the same flight. Just the two of us. I was pregnant with my daughter, Francie. It was a warm spring afternoon. The airlines boarded the plane late. And then once we were onboard, there was an issue with the air conditioner. An issue that meant instead of cool, refreshing air, hot air was pouring out into cabin. Our plane was not moving. Stuck– for an eternally long moment– on a runway at O’Hare. It started to get hot. Will started to get antsy. Yelling, screaming, kicking. The professionals had not yet diagnosed him as being on the autism spectrum. I just thought that’s how two-year-olds react to being stuck on a runway (thanks to the internet, we know some adults act even worse). But now I know it was more. He was frustrated. Angry. Unable to communicate. Overloaded by an assault on his senses. I walked with him. And it got hotter. The flight attendants– apparently concerned I was going to dramatically give birth on board– kept handing me ice cold paper towels. Will screamed more. The temperature rose. Thankfully, our seats were surrounded by the University of Texas Women’s tennis team. These ladies were funny and easy going. I remember one suggesting that we get my little Will naked so he wouldn’t be so hot. It’s nice to be able to laugh when all you want to do is cry.
Eventually the heat stopped. The cool air started to fill the plane and we took off for Kansas City.

I’d be lying if I said that three years later we have arrived. There’s still more work to do. But I was struck by the sight of my little guy: All of a sudden he’s sitting nicely in his seat, drinking his Sierra Mist with two hands. For that, I raise my glass. A toast to all the professionals who have spent countless hours with him. A toast to my family who has not only adapted to Will and his behavior– but somewhat effortlessly learned how to engage him. A toast to my husband who never once expressed disappointment that his only son might never be able to sit and do typical father-son things stuff. A toast to Will who probably thinks we are all a little ‘off’, but has accepted his ‘neurotypical family’ the way we are. And finally, dammit, a toast to me! There have been times I want to pull the emergency exit and slide off this ride, but it’s my awesome little buddy that keeps me on board.


Thanks for coming along on our journey, Leslie.

National Volunteer Week: Improving Access for Special Needs Children

Reputations spread quickly in the realm of charitable giving, especially when a company gives as much in time and human effort as it does in monetary donations.
Assurant Employee Benefits’ growing reputation over the years as a company that supports its charitable partners in more ways than simply financial led, to the development of its relationship with one of Kansas City’s most respected charitable organizations for special needs children: Variety Children’s Charity.
“We knew how active Assurant was as a company,” said Deborah Wiebrecht, executive director of Variety Children’s Charity of Greater Kansas City. “We thought it would be a great company to work with, so we reached out to Brenda Clevenger, [Public Relations Consultant at Assurant Employee Benefits] in 2013.
“For AEB to look at us and engage us means more than you can imagine. To have AEB’s support makes us bigger and stronger so we can reach more families.”
For 80 years, Variety has provided children with developmental disabilities with adaptive equipment and opportunities for activity and inclusion in everyday life activities of a child. Variety’s work allows children to gain mobility and freedom, to get out and about in the community, be able to communicate, achieve independence and increase self-esteem, and where possible the assistance to help them be integrated into mainstream school and activities.
The organization has found over the years that disabled children desperately want to be active members of their communities Wiebrecht said, but they need what many of us take for granted: access. Access for children with disabilities means having the freedom to go where they want to, either on their own, or if they need assistance, ultimately reducing the impact they make on those helping them.
“Variety helps break boundaries down,” Wiebrecht said. “Everyone has a hope and dream to be recognized. These children just want to go out and play with other kids. When we can achieve that, we can change our society.”
Variety doesn’t focus on any one type of need. Rather, the organization takes on a variety of children who experience issues in assimilating with the world, which is from where the organization takes its name. In America, one in four families has someone with a special need – and Variety is where many people go when they need help.
While AEB was a fit for Variety’s needs, AEB also found many parallels with its products and services.
“The connection with AEB & Variety is around disabilities and our philosophy on rehabilitation,” said Debbie Ruth, 2nd Vice President of Customer Advocacy. “Although Variety is for children, the organization provides children with developmental disabilities, adaptive equipment and opportunities for activity and inclusion in everyday activities of a child.”
Ruth said AEB’s support of Variety is important because it is solely dependent on local support and giving back. All the funds that are raised by Variety, the Children’s Charity of Greater Kansas City go directly to purchase the equipment for the child’s specific need here in Kansas City.
“I love that we get to see the benefits of the funds quickly,” Ruth said. “They really make a difference in the lives of these families.”
Ruth has been involved with Variety for about a year. She introduced to the organization last summer and then became a board member in October. Ruth began volunteering at AEB and then expressed interest in joining the Community Involvement Committee. Once she began becoming more involved in volunteering, Clevenger asked her to meeting with Variety and the Ruth’s deeper involvement soon followed.
“I knew I wanted to do something with kids and I loved that they were local and that it connected with what we do here at Assurant,” Ruth said.
AEB is a sponsor of the Variety Show, which is one of Variety’s biggest fundraisers every year. This year’s event will be on Saturday, April 11 at 6 p.m. at Arvest Bank Theater. The Variety Show will feature renowned comedian Mike Birbiglia as well as a live auction, mystery box items, and pre-show entertainment. AEB also sponsors the Royal Kids Fantasy Camp is June, as well as the Alex Smith Football Camp.
“Whatever we can do to help, we are always going to try to pitch in,” Ruth said.
Volunteers Needed
Variety is still in need of volunteers for the upcoming Variety show. Anyone interested can call Debbie Ruth at Ext. 2691.