TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — March is National Women’s History Month and WFLA is celebrating some of the most remarkable women in Tampa Bay. A panel of judges selected four finalists from nearly 200 essays written by people who know and admire them.
Allie Benson is the founder of St. Petersburg nonprofit Charlie’s Champs and its extension, Charlie’s Closet. Both aim to support the families of children with disabilities by providing medical and recreational equipment at no cost – items that are often expensive and not covered by insurance.
Founded in 2018, Charlie’s Champs has already donated 40 custom adaptive bikes to kids in Tampa Bay, allowing them to experience the joys of childhood and achieve a level of independence their families didn’t think would be possible.
“There are kids who can’t walk. Some of them can’t move on the floor, they can’t roll, they can’t crawl, they cannot get to where they want to go but they can pedal a bike if it’s set up correctly for them,” Benson said.
The adaptive bikes are uniquely made to meet each child’s needs. Many have head support, body support, and feet straps. The cost? Anywhere from $1,000 to over $9,000.
Benson, along with her family and friends, fundraise to buy each one.
“It has started small – I mean, we did a Chipotle fundraiser where you go and get a percentage of it. And each of these things only brings in a little bit,” she said. “As we’ve gotten a little bigger, we’ve started to apply for grants but a lot of what we’ve done has been through Facebook fundraisers for people’s birthdays and things through people’s works if they have donation matching.”
Benson’s dedication to empowering kids with disabilities comes naturally. She’s a pediatric physical therapist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital who works with children born as early as 22 weeks that are diagnosed with degenerative disorders in utero.
“I dedicate my life to kids who weren’t ‘supposed’ to make it, according to doctors and modern-day medicine,” she said.
But her mission is also fueled by love and grief. In 2017, Benson and her husband found out they were expecting. A few weeks later at a routine ultrasound, their baby girl Charlie was diagnosed with severe abnormalities.
“Thirteen weeks in we heard that her abdominal wall would not close and, at the time, was not terminal – we just knew that she would require at least one surgery if not several surgeries and she could look more like the kids I worked with rather than the kids I pictured I would have. So, I really wanted to make sure that she also could do all of these things I wanted these other kids to do,” Benson said, holding back tears. “As time went on she kept getting worse and worse. She ended up passing away before she was born and in her honor, I went forward with her nonprofit.”
In 2018, through heartache and grief, Benson founded Charlie’s Champs as an official not-for-profit organization.
“I feel like Charlie has a better life than she ever even could have if she was alive at this point because she helps so many other kids,” Benson said.
Benson and her husband now have two healthy daughters and together carry out the legacy they have built for Charlie.
Not only have they donated 40 adaptive bicycles to Tampa Bay children, but through Charlie’s Champs, they have also held inclusive community events that have included bike-a-thons, picnics and outings to sporting games.
And then there’s the other component of Charlie’s Champs: Charlie’s Closet. Charlie’s Closet is a free online exchange program where families can swap adaptive equipment.
“Feeding supplies to tray care supplies to wheelchairs to walkers to standers to old bikes and toys,” Benson said. “Making sure that everyone has access to everything they need whether or not insurance is covering it.”
Her mother, Michelle Ribner, says she’s amazed by Benson’s dedication to helping others.
“She just has incredible inner strength and a passion. I think that’s a really big part of it, a passion to help other kids,” Ribner said.
“I don’t think it’s being remarkable, I think I just initiated a community that needed to be started, and then everybody else is chipping in and being a part of it,” Benson told WFLA. “To see these kids able to have a choice and go somewhere where they want to go or do something next to a friend or next to their sibling – there really aren’t words to describe what it feels like and even what it looks like.”