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Redefining ABILITY: An Inspiring Profile on Brian Roy '90 and Nick George '23

By Justin Seaton '13

Brian Roy '90 (far left), Executive Director of Variety, empowers children with special needs by providing access to medical equipment, therapy and innovative programs.

His stocky body bulging in a button-up shirt and eyes glinting kindly behind rimless glasses, Brian Roy ‘90 offered me a tour of his offices — those of Variety, the Children’s Charity of St. Louis in Maryland Heights. The employees at Variety lifted their heads and smiled as we passed, their broad-shouldered Executive Director showing off a renovated playroom and a collection of newly donated furniture.

I immediately sensed a duality in Roy, in the way he spoke and the things he chose to speak about. A corporate executive concerned with justice; a rugby player with a gentle heart; an analytical, administrative mind with an upfront tenderness.

We made our way to his office and Roy launched into his story: He was raised in Kirkwood, one of four boys, all of whom went to St. Louis U. High. His dad, Barbeau ‘54, was also one of four, all of whom also went to SLUH. It was clear from the start how much he admired his alma mater, and how eager he was to talk about it.

“You find a place at SLUH – you find organizations or sports or clubs to get into,” said Roy. “When you’re down there, you feel that sense of community … My senses of justice, community and service were absolutely ingrained in me by the Jesuits.”

Tim Curdt, now the Director of the SLUH Learning Center, first met Brian Roy on their Direction Day in 1986. Thirty-four years later, Curdt remembered his first impression of Roy as a “connector.”

“Brian was pretty comfortable there from the beginning,” said Curdt. “He was a kind, funny, galvanizing personality that could bring a lot of people together ... I think those qualities are still evident now. He remembers everybody. He’s fundamentally kind.”

Roy went from SLUH to the University of Dayton, then onto a 15-year marketing career in the sports and entertainment industries. His gift with people served him well as a professional in the corporate world, but the parts of him that were rooted in justice and service felt undernourished.

“At some point I thought, ‘I don’t see myself being in this career anymore. Maybe I could use these skills somewhere else,’” said Roy.

Roy had been talking with Jan Albus, the CEO of Variety, about transitioning to the nonprofit world for “the better part of ten years.” In July 2010, Albus’ persistence finally paid off, and Brian signed on as the new Director of Marketing & Sales of Variety, the Children’s Charity of St. Louis.

“I felt, as his buddy, like he landed in a job that was perfect for him,” said Curdt. “What was a secondary asset in all those other jobs became a primary asset in this job. That is: he’s fundamentally person-centered.”

The Variety Club, as it was called then, was established in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1928 as “the charity of the entertainment industry.” Roy described those early Variety affiliates, or “tents,” as social clubs for philanthropic theater owners. Variety became well-known for putting together big-ticket fundraising shows in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and later, for telethons headlined by stars like Sammy Davis Jr. The funds raised at these events were then allocated to children with various needs.

In 2003, Variety St. Louis’ board of directors narrowed in on a new mission – to specifically serve children with physical and intellectual disabilities. Under the new mission, Variety’s model shifted. Whereas they had always raised money for outside grants, Variety’s leaders realized that they could provide better opportunities for the kids they served by creating and funding their own specialized programs.

“We were a pass-through organization,” said Roy. “We were raising money, then spreading it around to all these different silos. You had to go to one place for one thing and across town for another thing. But there was no one that was combining critical needs.”

From 2000 to 2010, Variety pioneered several programs: a children’s chorus, a three-week adventure camp and a fully inclusive theater program, to name a few. Then, starting around 2014, under newly appointed COO Brian Roy’s leadership, Variety started to quantify the impact of these programs in four distinct categories – skills, socialization, self-esteem and independence – by surveying the doctors, therapists and families in their network.

“No one else in the country was doing this stuff,” said Roy.

In 2016, Albus stepped away from her day-to-day administrative work at Variety, and in January 2017, Roy was named the new Executive Director. In his new role, Roy has continued to develop, assess and build upon Variety’s groundbreaking programs.

“Why can’t these kids go ice skating? Why can’t they rock climb? Why can’t they do robotics?” said Roy, more excited than I’d seen him all day. “We might have to adapt them a little bit, but Variety kids should have access to these experiences. With access to opportunities, these kids can do anything.”

____

Blue buddies Brian Roy '90 (left) and Nick George '23.

SLUH freshman and lifelong Variety kid Nick George ‘23 was diagnosed, just before birth, with a rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. He wasborn with several broken bones and spent about a month in the NICU. When Nick was cleared to go home, his parents Dottie and Tom had to find a way to safely get him there.

“The nurses at the hospital suggested calling Variety to get a specialized car seat for him, and that was our first contact,” said Dottie.

With Variety’s help, Nick made it home from the hospital and onto the stage. Over his 14 years with Variety, Nick has been a guest emcee at Variety’s trivia nights, a galvanizing spokesperson on local news appearances, and the first Variety kid to star as a principal cast member in the role of Flounder in The Little Mermaid.

After one theater rehearsal, Brian Roy and Nick George crossed paths backstage, and Nick told Roy he was looking at private high schools.

“I said, ‘you need to be down at SLUH,’” said Roy. “I knew the community would embrace him. It’s not easy. You’ve got to think things through and make accommodations, and I knew the people at SLUH would work to do that.”

At Roy’s behest, the Georges went to the 2019 SLUH Open House, where they ran into a fellow show parent, Tim Curdt, whose son Michael had appeared in a few Variety shows.

“Tim Curdt stopped us and said, ‘if Nick wants to go here, we’re up for the challenge,’ and they have been,” said Dottie. “It’s been tremendous everything that SLUH’s done for Nick to make this possible.”

When Nick chose SLUH, the staff and administration worked together to make sure that he could be independent in the building. Modifications were made to the first-floor restroom, accessible desks were ordered for all of his classrooms, and his class schedule was carefully designed to accommodate his needs.

“My job was to think through all of the events of the school year with the lens of, ‘how can we incorporate Nick in a way that maximizes his participation,’” said Curdt.

Variety chipped in, too, paying what insurance wouldn’t for a brand new, $50,000 power chair that can raise, recline and tilt – functions that allow him the freedom to go to school without an aid.

Now, into his second semester of freshman year, Nick has capitalized on the opportunities he’s been given to succeed and push boundaries at SLUH. On his first day of orientation, he asked if he could introduce himself to his class.

He rolled up to the stage, a 14-year-old boy facing a room full of his peers, still strangers, and said: “I can do just about everything you guys can do, it’s just that I’ll do it a little slower … I’ll make a deal with ya: Don’t bump into me, and I won’t run over you.”

And like that, Nick solidified himself as a leader, a connector. A few months later, Nick prepared to address his class once again, as a student council nominee, but he was sick on the day of the speeches. A friend stood in for him and delivered a moving speech about friendship, about feeling lonely, and about building community. By the end of the day, Nick had won the election for freshman class Vice President.

“That class has seen in Nick what I’ve seen in Nick, and their expectations of him as a leader represent them well,” said Roy, when he heard that Nick had won. ”They’re not going to expect less from him, and that’s what we’re going for. Nick and his classmates have redefined ability and re-imagined what’s possible.”

Nick George '23 (middle) poses with fellow students at the Running of the Bills on September 6, 2019 (photo by Jonel Olar '20)


Justin Seaton ‘13, a graduate of Saint Louis University, served as an Alumni Service Corps teacher in SLUH’s English department in 2018-19. He is a member of the school’s Communications Advisory Board.




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