Breathing Room

Breathing Room


In Livingston Parish, Chantelle Varnado, with a hand from her family, cares for 400 kids with special needs
By Amy Alexander | Tim Mueller photos
Chantelle Varnado has a passion for helping kids express themselves.

Her doctoral studies at LSU involved learning everything she could about rib cages. Help the kids to breathe better, she discovered, and they will be better able to share their dreams, tell stories, report on what’s bugging them and say I love you in a million different ways.

Chantelle Varnado and daughter Addison Varnado

As she was putting a capstone on her PhD in communications sciences and disorders, Varnado was faced with that eternal question that often brings about sleepless nights: What next?

One August night in 2015, her house quiet except for the occasional twitch of a Livingston Parish cicada, Varnado decided to pray about it. She wasn’t all that habitual with her vespers, didn’t consider herself to be especially devout.

But on that night, she experienced divine inspiration.

“God told me what to do,” she said. “By the morning, I had a business plan, a logo and a name. When my husband woke up, I told him, ‘I’m starting a nonprofit.’”

Varnado’s midnight epiphany became Launch Therapy Center, a bustling organization that supports children and families through a variety of individual and group services, parent support groups and religious education.

Varnado, a veteran therapist who served extensively in schools around Livingston Parish and in Virginia, began by offering therapy out of the activity center at her church, Immaculate Conception in Denham Springs.

“We moved the clinic in during the day, out at night,” she recalls. This was no small feat, considering that quality therapy involves a seemingly endless stock of supplies, setups, tools and toys.

They rapidly outgrew that space, which led to a series of expansions and moves as children from the Denham Springs and the Northshore areas discovered therapy services closer to home. Launch now serves about 400 kids from a location on Range Boulevard in Denham Springs.

The space is designed to accommodate its diverse clientele, which includes autistic children as well as those with ADHD, mental health challenges, brain injuries, spina bifida, and kids who do not exactly meet the criteria of any single condition, but who still need therapeutic support.

“We have the flexibility to work with those kids,” Varnado explains.

Parents often end up scrambling to find therapy when insurance companies don’t want to cover the sessions due to diagnostic criteria not being met. As a nonprofit, Launch uses its resources and raises money to help.

Children need their therapists to be local, Varnado advises, and not an inconvenient road trip away, to achieve consistent progress without disrupting their everyday lives and their time with family.

“It’s important to be where the kids are and to meet their families where they are,” she says.

A few years ago, Ashlea Maranto was driving 45 minutes each way to Baton Rouge regularly, trying to get answers and support for her daughter, Kala.

“She would not answer questions or speak when put on the spot. She was having trouble with confidence and self-esteem. She would essentially shut down when anxiety would build in a new situation,” Maranto says.

Launch was able to put together a multi-faceted plan for Kala. She practiced socializing in groups. Therapists taught her to learn one new friend’s name in a strange setting to help her feel less overwhelmed and alone. She also practiced breathing techniques and counting on her fingers to calm anxiety.

To help with school, she used pencils with special grips and weights. She ran on a treadmill and strengthened her abdominal and back muscles. She balanced on exercise balls and lifted weights.

“We started our journey when Kala was 5. Now she’s 13,” Maranto says. “I honestly believe had it not been for Chantelle having the dream and starting Launch, Kala would not be where she is today.”

Maranto says she’s grateful for the financial aid from Launch sponsors that her family received as they navigated insurance and disability benefits.

“I’ve known Chantelle since I was 11 years old and her husband, Brad, for even longer, so we felt very confident that we could trust her with the care and well-being of our son,” says Launch Board President Mike Dougay.

Before Launch, the Dougays were wearing a deep groove in the pavement between Denham Springs and Baton Rouge for therapy for their son, Parker. It took a toll on the entire family. Launch changed all of that, and more.

“What we noticed at Launch was that everyone involved was extremely passionate about what their mission was. There was a level of determination and optimism that we hadn’t seen before.”

Varnado strives to stay focused on the entire child and their entire family as she and her team plan solutions for clients.

“We’re not just in-and-out therapy,” she says.

Varnado’s family is a constant source of strength. This is a circle that doesn’t just cheer her on; they get involved with their hands, feet and hearts.

Dad is a hairdresser who volunteers his time to prepare kids to go to the barber. You wouldn’t believe, Varnado explains, the ordeal it is to get a haircut for kids who process sensory information differently from the norm.

Ditto for the dentist. Varnado’s sister, who is CEO at Bencaz Family Dentistry and serves as chair for Launch’s annual gala, is always at the ready to help therapists figure out how they can help make trips to the dentist easier.

“It’s about repeated exposure and desensitization,” Varnado shares.

Varnado’s mom does the accounting and helped to lay the floors in the new building. Her 82-year-old aunt built a giant “light bright,” drilling holes and filling small plastic bottles with colored water that the kids can move around to make designs.

“My family is like that about everything,” Varnado chuckles. “I can’t think of a time that all of them don’t jump in to do something. They are creative and handy. There’s always a project.”

During the first few months of re-opening during the COVID-19 pandemic, Varnado’s kids, now 19 and 16, came with their friends to help sanitize LEGOs and other toys.

Today, Varnado has black paint on her fingernails because she’s been hard at work creating a painted track on the lot behind her new building. It’s a mini-Indy 500 where the kids can ride adaptive bikes to get stronger and more coordinated.

She’s a manager who leads by walking around or, sometimes, even climbing on the roof, if that’s what it takes to clear up a problem so that her staff and clients can achieve as much as possible. There is inspiration everywhere.

Example: A stunning work of art that hangs in the center’s waiting room. It’s a dazzling horizontal bundle of individually painted sticks. Each stick is scintillating by itself, hues of bubblegum and starry tints, zig-zags and polka dots created by Launch kids. Taken together, though, the sticks form a bold statement about the power of connecting with one another while enthusiastically celebrating and supporting individual differences.

There was no way Varnado could have imagined the countless tasks that lay before her in building her organization, nor could she have envisioned the overwhelming support she would find all around her from so many different individuals.

In the first year of its operation, Launch provided 2,296 hours of therapeutic support and treatment. Last year, it hit 10,937 hours.

“I didn’t know how big the need was,” she says.

Even in the face of natural disaster and a global pandemic, Varnado says she feels energized every day by the knowledge that she is building something that will make a difference in her town and in the lives of so many families.

“This is God using me.”

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