The Down Syndrome Association of Northeast Indiana and Turnstone are joining forces this week to provide a camp where children with special needs can learn how to ride bicycles.
This is only the second time the Lose the Training Wheels camp has been here; the first time was in 2007. The Down Syndrome Association of Northeast Indiana received a $10,000 grant from Anthony Wayne Foundation so children of any disability and age could come and learn how to ride. Nancy Lorraine, executive director of Turnstone, said her agency is providing the space for the weeklong program.
Meagan Weaver of DSANI said 25 children are in the camp. About 40 percent of them have Down syndrome, and the rest have a wide spectrum of disabilities. The camp meets for five days, with a 75-minute session each day. The camp uses specially designed bikes to help the children learn how to balance. Each session has five children, and each child has two volunteers to help him or her balance.
Volunteers have come from throughout the community, including students from area high schools, a special-ed gym teacher and a University of Saint Francis employee. Cathleen Woenker, 13, has a sister with Down syndrome, and she and her friend Ali Hug, 14, volunteered for every session. By the end of the week, nearly 75 volunteers will have donated time.
On the first day of camp, children get on a bike with a wide roller where the rear wheel would be and a handle on the back to help them steer. Lose the Training Wheels, a national nonprofit, brings in all the bikes. The hope is that by the end of the week the campers can ride their own bikes without training wheels.
During each session, they spend the first 15 minutes warming up. Tandem bikes allow an instructor to get on the back with the child in front so he or she can get a feel for handling a two-wheeled bike without the risk of a crash.
The rollers on the special bikes go from a size 1 to 7. As they move up in size, the roller on the floor gets smaller and smaller. Once the kids graduate to a two-wheeler, without the roller, they are taken outside to the back parking lot to practice.
Wednesday morning, Deborah Norman was at the camp with her 8-year-old son, Devin.
“We had a Trail-a-Bike attached to my bike, then we had a bike with training wheels, then we took those off and put a handle on the back,” said Norman.
Her son has been working on the skill for a while. She first heard about the camp when he was 5 and they were living in Baton Rouge, La. Now he is old enough for the camp.
“He's so excited to come; he even remembered his helmet from the car this morning,” Norman said. “I have been running with him while he bikes."
She said she used the handle on the bike to guide him. But she hopes the camp will teach him how to handle his bike better. They just ordered him a new bike this week, and she hoped to have it by today for the last day of camp.
Joel Shellabarger and Nicole Klender, both high school students, flanked Devin as he pedaled around the gym, lapping the other campers; the flame decals on his helmet seemed very appropriate. The two students were doing a full run next to him, occasionally grabbing the back handle to help him steer.
The camp travels all over the U.S. and Canada during the summer, said Aimee Buckland, floor supervisor for Lose the Training Wheels. Buckland said Dr. Richard Kline of the University of Illinois invented the bike after 20 years of research with his students. The first bike camp was in 1999, but the organization was founded in 2007.
“This is a very individualized camp. I tell parents not to compare their child to the other riders,” Buckland said.
The camp has an 80 percent success rate – if success is defined by the child leaving the camp being able to ride a bike.
“Everyone is successful. For kids with sensory problems, it could just be getting them used to wearing a helmet,” Buckland said, adding, “It's like swimming without water wings. It helps lead them to other aspects of their lives, like bike rides with their families and friends. We see more riders from the age of 8 to 15, because it's not really cool any more to have training wheels.”
For Deborah Norman, the big moment came Wednesday when Devin soloed on a two-wheeler for the first time. She was all smiles as he circled the parking lot – a perfect parent moment.