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September 7, 2003

A 10-year-old's United Way success story will help kick off campaign

From: Kansas City Star, MO - Sept 7, 2003

The Kansas City Star

Tyler Kavanaugh was only 3 years old when he starred in a commercial promoting the United Way.

On Tuesday, Tyler, now 10, will stand before a crowd of about 1,000 and tell how the Heart of America United Way helped change his life.

It won't be hard.

He was born deaf and blind and suffering serious heart problems.

Now he eavesdrops on his parents, sneaks out of bed in the middle of the night to read books, and jumps off the diving board into the family swimming pool. He's in the gifted program at his grade school.

The change wasn't immediate. His parents had to learn sign language, then teach Tyler by taking his hands and forming the symbols. Therapists eventually taught him how to use a cane to maneuver around objects and how to use the small bits of light and color he could see to his advantage.

Before Tyler's birth, his parents, Kurt and Stephanie Kavanaugh, never dreamed they would need help from United Way. Kurt was a successful orthodontist and Stephanie worked for a large Kansas City law firm.

But Tyler was only 12 hours old when doctors told the Kavanaughs that their son was deaf. The next morning the couple learned he was also blind. Then they were told he would need surgery on his heart.

The Kavanaughs, who live in Leawood, wondered how they would raise a child facing so many challenges. They discovered they would have plenty of help.

Surgeons, nurses and the staff at Children's Mercy Hospital repaired Tyler's heart and helped make it possible for him to hear through a hearing aid.

The staff at the Children's Center for the Visually Impaired began working with Tyler when he was 4 weeks old and eventually taught him Braille and how to succeed in life without sight.

At the Children's TLC, the Kavanaughs learned sign language so they could talk to their son.

Aquatic therapy at the Jewish Community Center helped Tyler learn to walk.

Dedicated individuals at each of those agencies worked directly with Tyler and his parents, and much of that work was made possible from United Way funding.

"Some people still don't know how much the United Way can do for them," Tyler Kavanaugh said.

And so he eagerly awaits his moment in front of the crowd Tuesday at a breakfast to kick off the Heart of America United Way's annual fund-raising campaign, where officials will announce this year's goal.

Tyler's message will be as important as any the volunteers and supporters hear, said Ron Howard, public relations director for the Heart of America United Way.

Howard said Tyler's success exemplifies the organization's philosophy to spread assistance throughout the community.

"They (the Kavanaughs) first started receiving help while Tyler was still in the hospital as a baby," Howard said. "You can't wait until tragedy strikes to solve the problem. You have to have the resources in place before you need them."

In Kansas City, the system is working, Kurt Kavanaugh said.

Tyler offers proof. Stephanie Kavanaugh can watch her son read a book, work on the computer or battle his younger brother and sister for the VCR and forget about the overwhelming fears she once had.

"It seems like a different time, a different world almost," she said. "...Now we worry about whether he will be able to get into the college that he wants to attend instead of worrying whether he was going to live through a surgery."

© 2003 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.