Variety KC Harness Cafés at Liberty Middle Schools

Variety KC Harness Cafés at Liberty Middle Schools

For the first time ever, Body Weight Support technology has been moved out of the therapy gym and into the classroom. The “Harness School” Cafe is an innovative concept that allows middle school students who use wheelchairs and walkers a chance to stand upright with their hands free to fully participate in their school coffee shop. This allows them to practice job skills such as taking orders and serving coffee, integrate real-world math skills by operating a cash register, and socialize with their peers at eye level for the first time ever, all while gaining the therapeutic benefits of standing and moving on their own.

For an investment of $10,000 each, two Variety KC “Harness Cafés” have been built inside middle schools in the Liberty, Missouri, school district. The cafés sell and serve coffee, hot chocolate, and snacks while providing a life skills environment for students as part of the “Cooking to Learn” curriculum.  Each year, students with special needs work in the skills class alongside their non-disabled peers. But before the implementation of these life-changing “Harness Cafes,” students with physical disabilities couldn’t take full advantage of the learning, movement, and social opportunities working in the cafes.  The harness will be used by 20 kids with a variety of special needs who work alongside 40 abled-bodied peers. This cafe will serve new students each year and the high school is already considering duplicating this program. The harness can be used for at least 20 years.

As one student said, “Before the harness, greeter was the only job I could have. My wheelchair was below the counter, so I couldn’t make drinks or use the cash register. When I strap into the harness, it frees my hands and since it runs on a track – I can move all around the care. Now I can work just like my friends.”

Dr. Kendra Gagnon, the physical therapist who helped Variety KC plan and design the cafés, says the system does more than facilitate movement for students who usually rely on assistive devices like wheelchairs or walkers for mobility. It gives students a chance to experience getting out of their wheelchairs and interacting with “customers” alongside their peers – upright, hands-free, and eye level.   In an upright position, eye-to-eye with their peers, all students learn what’s possible – disabilities disappear, and new relationships are engaged and formed. Variety KC is a leader of inclusion in schools and communities, sharing innovative ways to include ALL kids.

Money raised in the cafés makes the investment sustainable. The most exciting outcome. As a supplier to the cafés, Danny O’Neill, the owner of the local Roasterie coffee company, attended the grand openings. Seeing the skills training enabled by the harness systems, O’Neill was inspired to go back to his own businesses to see where he could implement the system and provide jobs for local graduates who would benefit from this system.

Gagnon says, “My hope is that one day this system will be like a uniform. The employee would wake up, get dressed and put on the vest that they will later attach to the harness system at work. It will be seamless, needing no additional help from a co-worker or supervisor. How empowering and life-changing is that?”

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Variety KC Communication Boards

Variety KC Communication Boards

Variety KC Installs Inclusive Communication Boards in Playgrounds


Above and beyond what is considered an inclusive playground (physically allowing all kids to engage and play together), Variety KC is installing inclusive communication boards to aid engagement between kids and parents or caregivers, kids and other kids, and between participants speaking different languages.

Deborah Wiebrecht, Variety KC’s Executive Director, explains the impact of these boards, “By pointing or even simply gazing at the various symbols and pictures on the board, even young kids or children with limited expressive language ability can clearly express their needs and wants. It’s just one more way to remove barriers and make our playgrounds as inclusive as possible.”

Currently, you will find a communication board at the new Variety KC Hospital Hill playground in front of Children’s Mercy. Eventually the boards will be available at all six of the Variety KC playgrounds, plus playing fields and community facilities. For more information, contact Deborah Wiebrecht at 913-559-2309 or through email at


The High Cost of Raising a Child with Special Needs

The High Cost of Raising a Child with Special Needs

On average, it costs four times as much to raise a child with special needs. Part of this expense is adaptive equipment. The average number of pieces of equipment needed is 4-6 per child. Even the care for children without physical disabilities can be staggering. A child with autism may incur expenses of over $60,000 per year!

To cover these costs, families take out loans, max out credit cards and use retirement savings to pay for the here and now. Or, the kids simply go without recommended care.

Families also rely heavily on insurance. Unfortunately, insurance doesn’t always cover equipment and costs that the children desperately need.  That’s where Variety KC and our generous partners come in. Variety provides much needed mobility equipment and communication devices – we fund needs, not just wants.

Please help us to help families right here in the Kansas City area. Give generously today at Thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Heartly Thank You