ST. CHARLES – Bearing a message of inclusion, Elizabeth Gerlach will give a reading from her new children's book from 5 to 6 p.m. July 25 at an ice cream social at Kimmer's Ice Cream in St. Charles.
The St. Charles mom has titled her planned series "Ben's Adventures," basing the protagonist on her late son, a triplet, who didn't let disabilities curtail his loving spirit as he faced cerebral palsy and epilepsy from a wheelchair. He passed away two years ago at age 4, and the family last year created the Ben Smiles Memorial Foundation in his memory.
A portion of book proceeds will support the foundation's project to provide adaptive toys to children with special needs.
"[We wanted to] turn something very bad into something positive," she said of the charitable foundation.
And going beyond the sheer entertainment factor of a children's picture book, Gerlach said she also wants the book's image of a boy in a wheelchair to break down barriers.
"[It's] a message that's important for mainstream, typical kids … to make kids who need accommodations more of the norm," she said, recalling her son's experience in school. "He was in a blended classroom. He thrived. I think it helped the typical kids to gain a friendship with a kid who's not just like them."
Making an encounter with a person with some type of disability less scary from a child's point of view is part of the goal of the book, Gerlach told Kane Weekend Editor Renee Tomell. The following is an edited version of the rest of their conversation.
Renee Tomell: The setting for your book is "A Day at the Beach." How did you come to pick it?
Elizabeth Gerlach: I'm from the East Coast … growing up that was our family vacation. It seemed like a good scenario going into summer.
Tomell: What made you think of doing a picture book?
Gerlach: We had a message to kind of get out and a story to tell. I didn't come across a ton of books with kids in wheelchairs and geared to kids with special needs when I was looking for them.
Tomell: This is your debut book, but you have a background in creative writing?
Gerlach: I have an MBA in marketing and was a marketing director for a company that ran an attraction in Chicago. Before I made a choice to be home with [the kids], I managed a creative team.
Tomell: How did you connect with a publisher and find an illustrator?
Gerlach: A friend of mine in a moms group … had a book out. I started asking her questions about it. She connected me to her publisher – StoryBook Genius Publishing. They helped with [the] illustration.
Tomell: Tell me about adaptive toys.
Gerlach: There are things kids need to develop and play [to] help emotional development and overall development. My son Benjamin had limited … movement of arms and legs, a very difficult time moving his fingers. Toys are not covered by insurance, at least in our case.
A switch-adapted toy [can be] activated by hitting a button – with an elbow or fist – whatever the child is [capable of]. They are expensive … they easily could be $70, $80 or $90. [We] thought it would be a great way to turn around our grief. We started to gift or purchase not just the toys [but an adapted recording device]. If a child is nonverbal like my Ben was nonverbal, [one can] record answers or sayings into a recorder. In essence, it gives them a voice. We've [also] donated some to our church, Chapelstreet Church in Geneva.
Tomell: How can people reach out for help to the foundation you and your husband, Rob, created?
Gerlach: If someone is interested in requesting an adaptive toy for their child, the program is called Ben's Toy Closet. [There's ] an online web application on the website [bensmiles.org/bens-toy-closet].
Tomell: Your book has a joyful, positive tone. Have you started writing the next one yet?
Gerlach: I just wanted to show that kids are kids first, regardless of if they're in a wheelchair or on oxygen or need other devices of accommodation. All can play and dream. I'm hoping to jump into the next book in the fall.
If you go
WHAT: Author will read from her illustrated children's book called "Ben's Adventures: A Day at the Beach"
WHEN: 5 to 6 p.m. July 25
WHERE: Kimmer's Ice Cream, 1 W. Illinois St., St. Charles
COST: Free admission; first 20 to register will receive a free kid's scoop of ice cream