Variety-The Children's Charity seeks to grow in Eastern Iowa

Nonprofit hosted its 46th telethon last weekend in Des Moines

Parker Veldhuizen, 18 months, holds on as he swings on a saucer-shaped swing while visiting the all-inclusive playground
Parker Veldhuizen, 18 months, holds on as he swings on a saucer-shaped swing while visiting the all-inclusive playground at Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids with his mother, Kayte Veldhuizen of Cedar Rapids, in October 2017. The playground, which was the first in Cedar Rapids and features play elements that are accessible to children and adults with varying levels of physical ability, opened in 2017 with funding from Variety-The Children’s Charity. The Des Moines-based nonprofit has been putting more focus on Eastern Iowa in recent years. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

During a 16-hour telethon last weekend in Des Moines, Variety — The Children’s Charity expected to announce annual fundraising of about $4 million to pay for programs and services to help Iowa children who are at risk or living with special needs.

“The telethon is a culmination of our yearlong efforts,” Sheri McMichael, Variety executive director, said last week.

The telethon from 7 p.m. to midnight Saturday and 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday featured celebrity entertainers, including composer Tony Hatch, actress Emma Samms and former professional wrestler “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. Iowa corporations staff phone banks and make donations and — most fun of all — Variety presents specialized bikes to Iowa children with disabilities, McMichael said.

“We’ll be doing six through out the weekend,” McMichael said. “It’s just a lot of moving pieces.”

Variety is based in Des Moines, but the group started putting more focus on Eastern Iowa in recent years with the opening of an inclusive playground at Noelridge Park in 2017. The group also hired Robyn Reickhoff as the Eastern Iowa director to increase the organization’s profile.

Reickhoff’s budget is about $350,000 a year, with $200,000 of that going back out into the community.

The group’s areas of focus include providing vans to groups that need to transport kids to appointments or different activities, Rieckhoff said.


“We do the Variety vans, which you might see driving around town,” she said. “Last year, we did two vans. This year, I’m hoping to do even more.”

In addition to the specialized bikes, which can cost $5,000 to $6,000, Variety buys bikes, helmets and locks for children who might not be able to afford them.

The group also has a Two Days of Compassion radiothon in November to raise money to support families and children at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s and Mercy Cedar Rapids. The money helps families with children at the hospital pay for gas, meals, bills or child care for siblings.

Lastly, Rieckhoff works throughout the year to raise money for grants for building projects, equipment, programming and other tangible needs of Iowa nonprofits that focus on children, she said.

The 2020 telethon was Variety’s 46th.

With more Americans dropping traditional TV service, Variety has broadened its fundraising beyond the telethon, McMichael said. For example, the group has Very Interested Persons (VIPs) who raise money throughout the year and bring in about $1 million of the expected $4 million total, she said.

“The telethon is an end to that goal for our VIPs and corporate partners,” McMichael said. “That’s why we stream it online as well. It is something we’re starting to have conversations about. How are we working with our young professionals to interest them?”

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