Christopher’s Promise celebrates 12 years of helping kiddos get on bikes and JUST BE KIDS.
As an Otterbein junior Life Science and Education major, Lauren Lichtenauer ’11 felt she had her future mapped out: she was going to be a biology teacher. After careful introspection, however, Lichtenauer decided she wanted to change the lives of children, but not in the classroom.
More than a decade later, scores of kids with life-threatening illnesses and their families are glad she did. That’s because Lichtenauer founded the non-profit Christopher’s Promise, with a mission to “allow all kids, despite physical limitations, the ability to experience the same hallmark childhood memories as their peers. Helping kids, Be kids.”
Christopher’s Promise is now celebrating its 12th year of granting children such memories. The organization has facilitated the funding of and matched 157 kids with adaptive bikes in that time.
Malachi Parsons-Anderson joyfully receives his adaptive bike on campus.
Lauren Lichtenauer with her inspiration, Christopher Buzinski.
Always humble, Lichtenauer describes herself as “simply a matchmaker for Christopher’s Promise. I find a kid who needs a bike and then identify the best organization to fund it.”
Lichtenauer is a recipient of this year’s Otterbein alumni Rising Star Award, honoring those who have contributed excellence in their post-graduate careers. In addition to running Christopher’s Promise, she is vice president, clinical sales for Curonix. It’s all a great ride for Lichtenauer, who loves cycling.
Christopher’s Promise has its roots in the summer of Lichtenauer’s junior year at Otterbein, when she interned as a summer counselor at Camp Sunshine in Maine for nine weeks. Children facing a multitude of life-threatening illnesses and their families attend Camp Sunshine to connect with other families experiencing similar challenges.
“I heard about Camp Sunshine and resonated with its cause,” Lichtenauer said. “I was a one-on-one counselor with the children at the camp who faced cancer.”
One child she worked with was Christopher Buzinski, an 8-year-old with cerebral palsy, optic glioma, and neurofibromatosis, a rare genetic disorder that causes tumors of the nerves.
“He was a super happy and cute kid. He melted my heart,” Lichtenauer said. “I had a feeling he was going to be my life-changer.”
At the end of the Buzinski family’s week at camp, Lichtenauer returned to Westerville and wrote her senior thesis: The Effects of Therapeutic Camps on Children Facing Life-Threatening Illnesses.
While attending Otterbein, Lichtenauer worked in bike shops and continued to do so throughout her senior year. However, she missed the work she did at Camp Sunshine. She decided to volunteer at Flying Horse Farms — a camp for children with serious illnesses located in central Ohio.
“One day I got a call from my friend while she was at Flying Horse Farms,” Lichtenauer said. “I picked up the phone and heard Christopher’s voice for the first time in several years.”
Lichtenauer’s friend recognized Buzinski from Lichtenauer’s stories and photos. A week after their phone call Lichtenauer and Christopher reconnected at the Buzinski home in Parma, Ohio.
“I still remember that day. Chris, his family and I spent the day at the park,” Lichtenauer said. “After the kids went to bed I caught up with his parents and asked them if there was anything I could do to help out their family.”
The family knew of Lichtenauer’s background in cycling and work in bicycle stores throughout college. The Buzinskis asked for one thing: a bicycle for Christopher. Cerebral palsy restricted him from pedaling on the typical two-wheeled bicycles sold in stores and his disability left him unable to join his siblings as they rode their own bicycles. But the cost was prohibitive.
After conducting research Lichtenauer found an organization, Athletes Helping Athletes (AHA), that would fund an adaptive bicycle for Christopher. The cost was more than $2,000 but Lichtenauer completed the application and was surprised that Christopher and his brother, who also has a neurofibromatosis, would receive new bikes.
With an established relationship with AHA, Lichtenauer realized she could help give other disabled children the quintessential childhood experience of riding a bicycle.
Although Lichtenauer had fine-tuned the process, she had no network to find children who needed bikes. Recalling her Otterbein connections, she asked Shelley Payne, her former Health and Sports Sciences (HSS) professor, to put her in contact with any physical-therapist colleagues who worked with disabled children. Payne referred her to physical therapist Catie Christensen.
Christopher’s Promise was established and began the ride it is still on today.
“It was in 2012 that Catie began referring kids to me,” Lichtenauer said. “We worked together to get the first 20 Christopher’s Promise kids their specialized bikes.”
One of the more recent gifts again reconnected Lichtenauer with her Otterbein past.
Lichtenauer joined another HSS former professor, Joe Wilkins, during a fall HSS professional development day. After speaking with Lichtenauer, Wilkins had the idea that the department would donate money to gift a bicycle instead of buying each other holiday gifts.
“It was a natural fit for our department since we deal with health disparities and access issues,” Payne said. “Our department embodies health in a productive way.”
The HSS bicycle recipient was a miracle boy from Mansfield, Malachi Parsons-Anderson. When he was born, he was given less than a year to live due to his spinal muscular atrophy, but he recently celebrated his eighth birthday.
His mother, Tina Parsons, heard of Christopher’s Promise through a friend whose daughter received a bicycle. Because of his disease, Parsons-Anderson is unable to stand and has little muscle tone, which meant he needed an atypical bicycle with a backed chair and three wheels.
“It makes my heart happy to see him be able to do something that he can participate in with other kids,” Parsons said.
The Parsons-Anderson family was able to visit Otterbein’s campus along with Christopher’s Promise volunteers to meet Wilkins and to celebrate Malachi’s new ride and taste of freedom.
“Bikes really enrich these kids’ lives,” Parsons said. “The bikes give them a sense of independence where they feel they have no limitations.”
In addition to managing Christopher’s Promise, Lichtenauer enjoys a successful career in medical device sales. She takes no money from her countless hours heading Christopher’s Promise. “I believe all the funding given to the organization should go to the bikes so we can get as many kids on bikes as possible.”
The Columbus Firefighters Association and other community groups are involved now too. Two Otterbein alumnae, Catherine Mueller Eisenbrown ’10 and Ashley Gregg Taylor ’10, have also funded bikes. There’s an infinite need.
“Even in 2023 there are access difficulties for kids with disparities,” Payne said. “The adaptive bikes give the kids something to do with their families after dinner. They can be life-changing.”
That’s something Lichtenauer hopes to roll with for years to come.