By Lauren Sable Freiman | Photo by Jim Baron
So five years ago, from her home in Sidney, Ohio, Verdier launched TheraPals, an online community for children with special needs. Although the site is not intended to replace face-to-face therapy, it is meant to be an extension of services, a way to maintain skills, a friendship and support system for kids and parents, and as a resource for those who are otherwise unable to afford private therapy.
“TheraPals is similar to an adaptive Facebook that meets Match.com, where children across the world are matched up based on interests, abilities and disabilities,” Verdier says. “I find out what skills they’ve mastered – combing hair, washing hair, brushing teeth – and once I find out what they know, I help them come together with other kids to teach each other their skills. Good or bad, kids learn best from other kids. My job is to provide a safe platform for kids to have a positive influence on each other.”
Each child fills out a biography page where they enter information such as interests, hobbies, likes, dislikes and things that make them the happiest. Users can then search for friends by zip code or by interest and, under the close supervision of their parents, communicate through the site. Verdier also puts together video bundles for kids based on the skills they need to acquire. While most people overlook the tremendous amount of skill that it takes to get out of the house in the morning, from brushing hair and teeth to zipping up pants and buttoning shirts, these are skills that many children with special needs need additional help in mastering.
“If Joey needs to learn how to say the letter R, how to throw a ball and how to brush his teeth, I’ll put together a video bundle of other kids displaying those skills,” Verdier says. “I had one therapist contact me and she wanted videos from a child the same age as her client, with dark hair, with the same disability, so that client could see another child just like himself doing those things.”
Today there are 450 registered users on the site, including parents, professionals, and children. Through word-of-mouth advertising alone, users have flocked to the site from the United States, Canada, British Columbia and Australia. TheraPals is a subscription-based service, with subscriptions costing $19.95 per year.
“Kids that have the same disability just get each other,” Verdier says. “Kids want to feel that somebody knows what they are going through.”
Verdier’s concept has garnered support from parents and therapists of children with special needs, but it has also won support from funders. In February Verdier presented her idea as part of the Cleveland Leadership Center’s Accelerate 2015 Civic Pitch competition. She competed against 25 other presenters and was selected as one of five finalists. Although she did not take first place in the competition, she walked away with $5,000 to invest in TheraPals.
Verdier was also one of six finalists selected from a pool of 4,000 applicants to participate in the national Miller Lite Tap the Future Business Plan competition in Detroit. Though she did not win the coveted $200,000 prize, she pitched her idea to and received expert advice from Daymond John of ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
“As a very young child growing up on a farm, my father taught me that everyone has a skill,” Verdier says. “I might not be the strongest or the smartest but I knew I had skills, and for these children, even those with significant needs, it takes someone to let them know they have skills and can teach someone else. These kids are always the student and never the teacher, and there is something really empowering about being the teacher.”
While Verdier works as a school-based occupational therapy assistant three days a week, she devotes the remainder of her time to TheraPals, making connections for kids, distributing video bundles to TheraPals users and traveling to Cleveland a few times each month to talk about TheraPals.
“Cleveland is in the top ten for the percentage of children with special needs for major cities in the United States,” Verdier says. “I am working to connect with the Cleveland Municipal School District and families around the Cleveland area. With the Accelerate program, that was my initiative, to come here and make change in Cleveland for families that can’t afford private therapy or who don’t qualify for therapy in the schools.”
As she looks toward the future, Verdier says her end goal is not to make a million dollars but to change millions of lives. Although she says she would love for TheraPals to begin to generate income in the future, her extreme passion for helping kids gives her the fuel she needs to work part-time, be a wife and mother of five, and grow TheraPals.
“When you see these children and the accomplishments they make through peer to peer learning, it is so powerful,” Verdier says
For more information: Therapals.com