Christopher Wolfendale added a new energy to our work in 1997 when he spoke four powerful words - "I will be amazing."
- during the award-winning Amazing Kids advertising campaign. He was a 14-year-old student in The Day School at the time. This seemingly simple sentence was truly visionary, not just for Christopher's life, but for the continuing evolution of our organization, which was renamed The Children's Institute of Pittsburgh the following year. In 1998, after 95 years of cultivating our expertise to best serve those with disabilities, we reaffirmed our highest priority - to promote the wellbeing of children, young people, and their families.
We knew then that Christopher had great potential - and so did he. Now, 23 years later, he personifies our mission statement: To Heal. To Teach. To Empower. To Amaze.
It has been our privilege to share life's journey with the Wolfendale family.
Christopher was born 13 weeks early on April 16, 1983, and he spent his first nine months in the hospital. He came home with serious medical issues involving his digestive and respiratory systems, and his emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development were compromised. During those first years, his parents, Kim and Jeff Wolfendale, focused all their efforts on Christopher's very survival. But as he grew older and stronger, they began to search for an environment to best nurture their special boy.
"We were just one little family with a child who was different, climbing this huge mountain of medical complexity and feeling lost, scared, and alone. And then, thank goodness, we discovered The Children's Institute," says Kim. "The teachers and therapists nurtured Christopher, and Jeff and me, and then Christopher's younger sister, Brittney. They gave all of us the tools we needed to help Christopher be the very best version of himself."
When Christopher started at The Day School in 1988 at age 5, he wasn't walking, talking, or toileting. Today, with assistance, he resides outside the family home, has held a job he loves for more than a decade, and enjoys a full schedule of leisure and recreation activities. The family gently teases Christopher that he's too busy, and they wish he would spend more time at home with them. He has great memories of his years at The Day School, especially the team members he still calls friends. And when asked how he is, Christopher's straightforward response is full of meaning - "I am amazing."
"Everyone has a skill set - a way to participate in and positively impact their families and communities," Kim explains. "No one should ever say no to these kids. At The Children's Institute, the word of the day, every day, is yes. The teachers and therapists look at special kids like Christopher and see possibilities, not problems. That kind of acceptance and encouragement creates hope for the future."
It also motivates people to action.
Christopher inspired his mother, a now retired first grade teacher, to create Laps for Love, a service learning project Kim implemented in her elementary school. The curriculum provides disability education and teaches tolerance and compassion. Students write letters to family and friends to explain the project and request donations to The Children's Institute for running laps around the school gym. Since Kim began Laps for Love, nearly $100,000 has been raised for The Children's Institute. When she retired in 2017, other teachers stepped up to run the program.
Christopher was also the inspiration for his sister to pursue a career in pediatric occupational therapy. He was 11 when Brittney was born, so her earliest memories include the energy and activity of the Squirrel Hill campus, and the teachers and therapists who cared about her family. She joined the team at The Children's Institute in August 2018.
"Christopher is a pure soul who has taught us so much," says Jeff. "The Children's Institute really nurtured his personality and his confidence. They helped us let go of the dreams of what we thought should have been by showing us how to empower Christopher's unique gifts. That inspired a new dream, which is coming true day by day."
"Christopher is my passion. Brittney is my joy," Kim says. "Both of our children are living the kinds of lives that all parents wish for our children. Our dreams are being answered because they are healthy, safe, and happy. Staff at The Children's Institute equipped our son to be the man he has become, and now they are encouraging our daughter in the vocation to which her brother inspired her. We are blessed to have two amazing kids."