“The wheels on the bike go round and round, all through the town…”
What parent hasn’t sung something like that to a child who is proudly or reluctantly or fearfully mastering the complex feat of bike riding? I experienced all those emotions simultaneously while relearning to ride a bike in my retirement years, as well as the exhilarating freedom of movement, the rush of the wind, the smells and sensations that come with bike-riding success. How can every child and adult experience biking with family and friends in their community?
This month, on St. Paul’s historic and flower-bedecked Hamline University campus, 40 children with a range of disabilities and their families were experiencing the joy and challenges that come with bike-riding. For five years, a five-day camp program called “I Can Shine Bike Camp” sponsored by the Minnesota Down Syndrome Association has brought together children, parents and care-givers, and volunteers to get those wheels rolling. Volunteers receive careful training to assist children and adults with a broad range of disabilities in 75-minute sessions tailored to each person’s abilities and comfort level. Families witness the bikers’ joy of participating in an activity that they might previously considered out of their reach.
On Day 1 of bike camp I was a volunteer spotter for an enthusiastic, outgoing 13 year old camper who has Down syndrome. She soon barely needed to be steadied or encouraged during her 75 minutes of riding with ever-increasing independence as her other spotter and I trotted alongside.
All eight children in our session participated (with only a few episodes of hesitation or refusal), circling the field house, turning corners, navigating around each other. We “spotters” were trained to stay close but slightly behind the rider (“hip-by-hip”) and were told to only touch the rider and bike when needed for safety. And, yes, they (and their spotters!) got tired! After quick breaks we returned to the vigorous exercise. Witnessing her success as well as other 7 riders’ progress brought a smile to my face that never left for the entire time.
The special bikes and skilled staff are from a national non-profit organization iCan Shine, Inc. that comes to town the first week of August each year. The success rate for campers who attend the Twin Cities bike camp has been 80%, similar to elsewhere in the country. (The program partners with local sponsoring organizations in 32 states and in Canada.) The remaining 20% are well on their way to independent biking, and all families receive a detailed individualized home program at the end of the week to continue skill-building. Camp attendees’ disabilities include Down syndrome (60%), Autism (20%), cerebral palsy (5%) and various other conditions.
In addition to the carefully controlled setting and individualized attention, a key to success comes from the adapted bicycles that the children use at the beginning of the week. The bikes belong to the national non-profit iCan Shine, Inc., headquartered in Paoli, Pennsylvania. The bikes are ingeniously designed with a rear-wheel roller (sort of like a rolling pin) that provides stability while the riders learn to balance. Once the child seems ready, the initial cylindrical roller is changed out during a “pit stop” for the next level roller that is tapered on both ends to allow the bike to wobble a bit and gradually expose the child to balancing skills. An additional safety device is a handle attached to the back of the seat so that the spotters can quickly gain control of the bike to prevent falls.
On Day 2 (called “Tandem Tuesday”) each child rides on the front of a specially-adapted tandem bike with an experienced staff member behind to safely experience speed, steering and balance. On Day 3 most children transition to their own bikes that the parents bring to the camp. By Friday’s award ceremony all children have experienced riding outside on the Hamline track.
Each child and family brings its own story, and parents, staff, and volunteers learn and share these stories. Common goals are to be able to include the biker in family recreation and build skills, confidence and coordination. Some campers come back a second or even a third year if they need additional training. For example, one mother described how, after a successful camping experience, her daughter took a fall and lost confidence in riding. She then had a growth spurt and outgrew her bike. A couple of years later and with a new bike she returned to camp; she quickly caught on to biking and now she rides around the neighborhood cul-de-sac for 10 minutes at a time completely on her own. Her increased self-confidence has spilled over into other parts of her daily routines.
More than bikers and families are transformed during bike camp. Camp Director Mary Hauff works all year to partner with community groups that provide funding and volunteers for each of the 5 daily sessions. Volunteers build relationships with the bikers and families as they gain insight into children with disabilities, their strengths and their uniqueness. Groups of volunteers come from corporations, soccer teams, church groups and some are health profession students. Many volunteers plan their summers around the camp schedule and return year after year. National iCan Shine, Inc. trainer Amanda Kuhn, a special education teacher during the year, began volunteering when she was in high school and the experience led her to her chosen career. She says, “Bike camp is my passion and I can’t imagine not doing this every summer.” This unique bike camp builds relationships and develops, fitness habits for life through this inclusive activity. Riding a bike is an important rite of passage filled with magical moments on wheels.