Free to be me

A refuge for disabled kids struggles to survive

Briana Beaver (lower left) and Faelin Klein (top right) pose with Sunshine Connection kids.

Briana Beaver (lower left) and Faelin Klein (top right) pose with Sunshine Connection kids.

photo Courtesy of faelin klein

When Briana Beaver was 7 years old, she attempted suicide.

Fed up by the constant rejection she faced in her daily life, she ran into the street in downtown Chico. Her mother, Faelin Klein, ran after her and scooped up her daughter, who was shaking.

At the time, Briana was bound to leg braces and often used a walker, struggling to get her limbs to align with what her brain wanted them to do.

Shortly after the incident, Briana began asking her mother: “What is there to live for?” Klein, unable to answer her daughter’s question, knew many individuals with disabilities resorted to a life of isolation, but she was unwilling to accept that sort of life for her daughter.

Klein envisioned a place where kids could be themselves and leave their problems at the door—a refuge for kids like Briana. So, the Sunshine Kids Club (now the Sunshine Connection) was born in 1994.

Siblings were welcome, too, giving kids a place to see their brothers and sisters with disabilities interact with other kids who did not see them as different or inferior.

“They would walk in a miserable kid, and walk out a happy kid,” Klein said, noting that many would go from hiding in a corner to singing karaoke front-and-center. The club offered wheelchair basketball, martial-arts programs and other social events, and served more than 600 children over the years.

Unfortunately, the Sunshine Connection is now “back at the beginning,” out of money, its future uncertain. Klein and Beaver are using this summer—which would usually be spent planning next year’s calendar—to regroup.

The past few years have been spent dealing with state budget cuts and threat of a lawsuit by the Sunshine Kids Foundation, an organization for kids with cancer based in Texas, over the use of the name “Sunshine Kids Club.” Those distractions have pulled the nonprofit away from its original purpose.

“We’ve been on the treadmill, and it’s not benefiting where it should be.” Klein said as Beaver sat nearby, nodding. “So we’ve been soul-searching on how to get back to the roots, and are taking a breath.”

The organization is open to merging with another nonprofit, an option Klein has been exploring with no luck yet. To stay afloat next year on its own, they need $35,000.

But, regardless of its future, the Sunshine Connection is a “Band-Aid” for the larger issue in society that individuals with disabilities are segregated, and communities do not have natural, built-in supports, Klein said.

“What I was doing [when I started the nonprofit] was trying to save my kid’s life,” she said. “And it did that.”