Ryan Johnston

Saegertown’s Ryan Johnston, 12, pushes the new specialty bike he received from Variety the Children’s Charity out of the Meadville Medical Center Grove Street facility on Wednesday afternoon.

When 5-year-old Jacob DuJardin took the first lap on his brand new adaptive bicycle for special needs children at  Meadville Medical Center’s Grove Street Facility Wednesday afternoon, his parents Jim and Linda knew their lives were about to change for the better.

“He loves motion,” Jim said. “Any action, he loves, whether it’s swings, slides, (etc.).”

Jacob and 10 other Crawford County children with special needs received their very own three-wheel bikes from Variety the Children’s Charity representatives at the facility as part of the growing “My Bike” Program.

After the children took their new wheels for a spin, many parents expressed excitement about their next outdoor venture now that their son or daughter can ride along with the family.

“This way we can all ride,” Jim said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

The “My Bike” Program is designed to provide mobility, freedom, social inclusion and a typical childhood experience for children who might otherwise be left out, according to Charles LaVallee, Variety chief executive officer.

Variety, based in Pittsburgh, recently expanded its program into the region and currently has 150 bikes available for eligible children in Crawford and 14 other counties.

“It’s a life-changing opportunity,” LaVallee said. “We create awareness, find kids and find the funds to get them bikes. Hopefully we create these opportunities in Crawford County.”

The first milestone for the region has been passed, he emphasized, with Wednesday’s presentation and miniature parade, during which the children rode their bikes around the MMC assembly room, much to their delight.

LaVallee hopes to expand additional Variety programs into the county, including celebratory and other events for special needs children.

“We’re thrilled to host for them,” Don Rhoten, MMC Foundation president, said of Variety. “They coordinated with all the families and they’ve been fantastic.”

The presentation also recognized Jim Ackman, representing Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, the program’s founding sponsor.

“We really appreciate the people who saw this as a possibility,” Linda DuJardin said. “It’s really wonderful. We had no idea there were programs like this.”

And that’s the main issue standing in the way of special needs children and a chance to experience joyful independence, LaVallee said.

“A lot of people don’t think they’re eligible,” he said. “They don’t even apply because they think it’s not possible and that’s just heartbreaking to me.”

The bike program is just over two years old and just gave away its 400th bike last week. Each bike is homemade in the U.S. and costs approximately $1,800, according to LaVallee.

Variety is openly seeking additional sponsors and donations to get as many eligible special needs children equipped with adaptive bicycles as possible.

To be eligible for the “My Bike” Program, applicants must live in one of 15 counties, including Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Crawford, Erie, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Mercer, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland.

Additionally, applicants must have a physical, mental or sensory disability documented by a physician; be 21 years of age or younger; submit a letter from a physical or occupational therapist indicating that an adaptive bicycle would be medically appropriate and therapeutic for the child and that a conventional bicycle would not be appropriate; and submit a completed “My Bike” application.

Household income must meet program income guidelines of 400 percent or below federal poverty guidelines. A family of four, for example, can earn up to a maximum of $94,200.

More information about applying for a bike or making a donation: Call Meadville Medical Center Foundation at 333-5441; visit the Variety website at varietypittsburgh.org; or call (412) 747-2680.

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