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Bike Camp Helps Steer Special-Needs Children Toward Independence

Participants learn to ride modified two-wheelers during a weeklong program at Page Youth Center

Friends and family of special-needs children crowded into the stands of the Page Youth Center on Friday afternoon for a Bike Rodeo. They brought with them nothing but smiles. No one pressured their child to win, no one yelled at a referee, paced angrily across the courts or threw their hands up in despair after a mistake. The only hint of competition was one mom’s shirt that read, “My child has more chromosomes than yours.”

The excitement was palpable, cameras were abundant and the children were happy. It was the conclusion of a weeklong bike camp for children with special needs. It ended with a bang, as participants, family and friends celebrated the campers’ achievements.

The camp, sponsored by the Down Syndrome Association of Santa Barbara County and put on by Lose the Training Wheels Bike Camp, provided an opportunity for children to learn how to ride modified bicycles designed for those with disabilities.

With the help of coach Michael Galvan, an adaptive P.E. specialist, and a group of dedicated volunteers, more than 80 percent of the riders were able to ride a conventional bike by the end of the week.

Retta Slay, the mother of a special-needs child, organized the event, and hustled around the gym in an omnipresent, motherly sort of fashion.

“Children and adults have difficulty learning in a traditional way,” she said. “Many times they need adaptive equipment and techniques.”

The bikes were custom-engineered by Dr. Richard Klein, a retired neurologist who spent many years working on design improvements and manufacturing. The program replaces the back wheel of trainer bikes with a flat roller, providing stability. It allows the riders to progress to balancing on their own. In addition, the handlebars are raised, and the pedal shanks are lowered, allowing for a more natural balance and smaller strides. On the back of the bikes are handles for the spotters, so they can run behind them and act as a safety net during uncertain times of wobbliness.

Matt Hampton, executive director of Lose the Training Wheels, handled all of the adjustments and maintenance of the special bikes during the week. He said the roller on the back of the bike gradually gets less and less stable throughout the week as they change it for the progressing rider.

“In essence, we’re just creating an environment to learn and the bikes to teach to ride,” Hampton said. “For the kids, in many cases, it’s a life-changing event.” He also noted the importance of exercise for these kids, saying, “This is exercise, even though it doesn’t feel like it.”

Hampton could be seen running and cheering alongside the kids as they whizzed by the spectators on their bikes.

“It’s a big deal to them,” he said. “They know other kids are doing it and they’re not. It’s kind of a rite of passage.”

The camp and bike rodeo were both firsts, presenting a new opportunity for the Santa Barbara community. Slay said that to her knowledge, no other such camps exist locally. Organizers hope to make it an annual event with community support of donations and volunteers.

Each day of the camp required 36 spotters. Ten Santa Barbara County firefighters showed up to help, running back and forth holding the handles to keep the children safe. “It’s part of their daily workout,” Slay joked.

In addition, volunteers of all ages trickled in on their lunch breaks, or at other free times in their day. “It keeps you in shape,” Slay said. “It’s good for the whole community.”

Instead of training wheels, the bikes come with a flat roller on the back, providing stability and allowing the riders to progress to balancing on their own.
Instead of training wheels, the bikes come with a flat roller on the back, providing stability and allowing the riders to progress to balancing on their own. (Lindsey Weintraub / Noozhawk photo)

The riding courses were supervised and assisted by volunteers from the Kiwanis Club of Santa Barbara, UCSB’s Optimist Club and Push America.

Push America stopped by on its Journey of Hope, a cross-country bike ride of mostly college students from the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity.

Adorning light-blue matching T-shirts, the guys made what they call a “Friendship Visit” on their journey to raise money and awareness for people with disabilities. They hustled from one end of the gym to the other as spotters for the children riding bicycles, cheered the kids on and provided words of encouragement after the occasional unlucky spill. Others directed traffic in the parking lot or helped with event coordination.

In addition, some of the group’s bicyclists, decked out in competition gear, rode their bikes for the kids in a show after Friday’s graduation, where each camper was honored. Supporters greeted them as each received a certificate with his or her name on it.

It’s an important moment for parents as they watch their child reach a milestone and feel self-sufficient. “The confidence comes over into other areas of life,” Slay said. “They are willing to try.”

She said it’s paramount for children with disabilities to learn how to ride a bicycle. It gives families something to do on vacations in addition to allowing children with disabilities to keep up with friends, neighborhood playmates and classmates at school.

“(It) opens doors,” Slay said.

In addition to allowing the children to blend in more cohesively with the fabric of everyday childhood life, she said learning to ride a bicycle is an investment into their future.

“It’s freedom, it’s independence, it’s self-esteem. It’s the gift of a lifetime,” Slay said, adding that many of them won’t get a driver’s license, so this is the gift of transportation.

Lisa Homann traveled from Georgia to see her nephew, Ryan Fitch, debut on his bicycle.

“If I start crying later you’ll know,” she said. “I just think this is wonderful, just a fabulous experience for Ryan. It’s given him so much confidence.”

Homann is a member of the Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta. Each time her nephew pedaled by, Homann cheered him on with the passion of a spectator at an Olympic event.

As the kids zipped by on their bicycles, spotters trailed with a mixture of enthusiasm, apprehension and exhaustion. One boy jovially pedaled his way across the gym with a happy-go-lucky attitude, gliding along in pure bliss. An unexpected wobble sent him screeching to a halt in an almost tumble to the ground, but his face erupted into a grin and he exclaimed, “Uh, oh!” followed by a string of playful giggles.

If only we could all face life’s little bumps in the road with such joy and charisma.

Noozhawk intern Lindsey Weintraub will be a sophomore at the University of San Diego in the fall. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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