As he headed into the second half of his first year, Hunter Zahn rolled, but would not crawl wherever he wanted to go within his family's north Scottsdale home.
"We used to call him our steamroller, and it was a joke," his mom, Erika Zahn, said.
Still, she knew something wasn't right.
Hunter was a fussy baby who seemed frustrated as he rolled along the floor. When Erika Zahn and her husband, Tracy, tried to help their firstborn sit up, he fell flat on his face.
It turned out he had weak muscle tone, and his body couldn't respond to his brain's will to move it.
It also turned out his father's insurance provider, like most others, offered only limited coverage for the intensive physical therapy Hunter needs.
Hunter is 18 months old, and he plows through his grandfather's Mesa home like a happy, two-legged steamroller, after more than $7,500 in physical therapy largely financed by the kind of child-centered nonprofit organization Tribune readers will be able to support by donating to Our Children Matter, a holiday campaign by the Tribune's family of newspapers.
For the rest of 2003, a series of articles will bring readers into the lives of East Valley children who need a boost as they start life's uphill climb, and some of the agencies that give them a helping hand.
Tax-deductible contributions will go into a fund administered by Mesa United Way for the Tribune, and by early next year will reach agencies that help disabled, abused, low-income and other children who need some extra attention.
Our Children Matter was sparked by the recent East Valley Needs Assessment, a survey of people from Scottsdale to Gilbert that found that children's needs consistently rise to the top of the area's priority list when it comes to social services.
Mesa United Way president Carol McCormack brought the concept to the Tribune. Publisher Karen Wittmer said, "we just grabbed it instantly because it was such a great idea."
Wittmer said Tribune readers have a track record of generosity, citing the response to recent stories about a Gilbert homeowners association threatening to foreclose on the home of a cancer patient for nonpayment of HOA dues.
This could be the beginning of a Tribune tradition, Wittmer said. "I'm hoping this is a successful drive, and that it's something that's going to grow every year." Mesa United Way will be the fiscal agent for the Tribune's drive, but any group that helps East Valley children will be eligible to apply for grants from the pool of donated dollars, to be awarded early next year. The United Way is providing its services, including a search for matching-fund partners, free of charge. "For our purposes, this is what a United Way is supposed to do," McCormack said. "We're supposed to encourage people to help others in the community."
The Zahns never thought they would need help. Tracy, 39, is a Boeing engineer who works on the Apache helicopter, and Erika, 28, was a $60,000-a-year accounting manager for Peter Piper Pizza until she quit her job about a year ago as Hunter's problems became evident.
At 9 months, Hunter was diagnosed with hypotonia, or weak muscle tone. Because this condition can improve over time, with or without therapy, it's considered by most insurance companies to be a "developmental delay," rather than a disability, and coverage of sessions is limited.
The Zahns took their son to as many as six sessions a week during the 60-day window during which the visits were covered by Tracy Zahn's insurance.
As that window drew to a close, Hunter was sitting up on his own and starting to crawl, as his parents faced monthly expenses approaching the size of their house payment. "He had just started making progress," Tracy Zahn said.
One of the therapists at Scottsdale Fiesta Pediatrics referred the Zahns to Child Improvement Through Therapy, a 23-year-old network of physical therapists and parents of special-needs children who have footed half the physical therapy bill for hundreds of children throughout the Valley.
Board president Jill Mapstead said the agency is geared to middle-class families (up to $100,000 annual income) who don't qualify for state aid and are stuck with exorbitant bills for therapy their children need to overcome anything from a speech impediment to cerebral palsy. The group's chief fund-raiser is an annual auction held at the Scottsdale Conference Center; last month the event netted about $90,000.
Mapstead's daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with hypotonia as a toddler, unable to walk or talk. She's now a 10-year-old fourth-grader getting A's and B's in school. "Had we done no physical therapy, I don't think cognitively she'd be where she's at," Mapstead said.
Despite his progress, Hunter still has a long road ahead. His tongue isn't strong enough for him to say much beyond "ball," and some weeks he vomits daily because he can't stop gagging on his food and milk.
His parents have caught the public service bug from the agency helping them. Tracy just finished three months as a "loaned executive" from Boeing to Mesa United Way, telling Hunter's story to about 60 different groups as part of its fund-raising campaign.
And Erika is technically Child Improvement Through Therapy's only paid employee, putting in about 30 hours a month doing the books and administrative work in return for Hunter's therapy payments.
She doubts she'll ever go back to working full time. "I'm much more focused on the community now," she said. "I've just snowballed."