Learning how to ride a bicycle is something that most people take for granted — in fact, most people don’t remember the first time they got on one. But for 22 lucky kids gathering at Huntington High School this week, this is an event they will not soon forget.
National charitable nonprofit iCan Shine has joined Marshall University this week to teach children with special needs or disabilities how to successfully ride a two-wheeled bicycle by themselves.
Gregg Twietmeyer, an associate professor of kinesiology at Marshall University and camp director for Lose the Training Wheels in Huntington, said this is the fourth consecutive year he has been involved with the camp. He said he stumbled on the program as he was preparing a lecture and knew the program would not only benefit children, but also would be a good educational opportunity for students as well.
“In our discipline we tend to overemphasize the science, in my reading anyway, and forget the person that we’re treating,” he said. “It is larger than just creating the bikes — you are dealing with people and helping them learn a skill. When you help them learn that skill you are affecting the whole person. It’s not their fitness or biochemistry that changes, it’s their whole life.”
Emily Simpson, a floor supervisor for iCan Shine, said there are multiple benefits for children who participate in the program, including increased self-esteem and self-confidence.
“A lot of riders come in and they are so negative and so down on themselves and they get going on a bike right away. You can see them light up and the smiles come back on their faces and they can see that they can do this,” she said.
Simpson helps supervise the camp throughout the week and helps to encourage and motivate the kids. She also ensures they are safe while they are learning how to ride the specialty bikes, which were specifically modified by mechanical engineer Richard Klein, in order to help the kids learn by a step-by-step process.
The bike, instead of having a back tire, has a roller in its place. The roller looks similar to a rolling pin, but has tapered edges. Simpson said the kids start out with a less tapered roller so they can build confidence while riding around in the gym. Once they are comfortable with the roller, they switch it out for one with a slightly tapered edge. The process continues throughout the week until Friday, when about 80 percent of the children that are enrolled in the camp are expected to be able to ride the bikes on their own.
“It’s a nice gradual transition,” she said. “It’s not a sudden change from training wheels to two wheels — it’s a nice, gradual transition sometimes our riders don’t even notice. They just start to adapt after some time on those rollers.
“You just kind of have to see it to really understand its full potential. Seeing someone from the beginning and then at the end (of the week) is really eye-opening and a real miracle and success story for them.”
The children come in for 75-minute sessions every day where they are supervised under the careful eye of volunteers to make sure they don’t get injured. Twietmeyer said about 75 percent of the volunteers for the camp are students from Marshall, where they are majoring in nursing, science, physical education and sport management. Other volunteers are members from the community or family members and friends of kids in the program.
Leon Hart, a volunteer from Ashland, Ky., said this is the second year he has participated with the camp. He said he knew from the very beginning that he wanted to help the kids learn, and able to volunteer when he retired from teaching last year.
“It was something that I wanted to be involved with and give something back to the kids,” he said. “The program is unbelievable. They come in and they are so wobbly when they first begin and then by the end of their first 75-minute session you can see marked improvement. Look at the smiles on their faces — how could you not love being here?”
The devoted parents of the children, who Twietmeyer said usually have autism or Down syndrome, come from surrounding areas. This year, they even have a participant from Kentucky.
Joe Gorham drove two hours from Lexington for his son Mark to attend the camp. Mark, who is 13, had brain damage that occurred shortly after he had surgery after he was born.
He said both he and his wife tried to teach their son how to ride a bike, but Mark had a hard time getting over the anxiety of falling.
“I think it helps too that he has more people than just his family supporting him. When he gets people that he doesn’t know and they are telling him he can do it as well it gives him a little more encouragement,” he said.
Gorham and his son are staying at a hotel for the week, and said he can already see an improvement after a couple of sessions.
“It’s just a great program,” he said. “It is real heartwarming to know these programs exist. It makes you hopeful that they will be able to do more because a lot of this stuff, as far as physical activity, is really important for these children.”
Contact writer Shawnee Moran at 304-348-4872 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shawneemoran22.