HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Monday afternoon, around a dozen kids in shorts and T-shirts began filtering into the Huntington High School gym at about a quarter after 3. It’s the middle of the summer, but nobody seemed to really mind being at school.
This was the second session of the day for Lose The Training Wheels, a program that strives to teach special-needs children and disabled people how to ride a bicycle.
The camp is held by iCan Shine, a national charitable nonprofit program (formerly called Lose The Training Wheels) that conducts bike camps for people with disabilities and is sponsored by the Marshall University kinesiology department.
Lose The Training Wheels in Huntington was started by Marshall kinesiology professors Drs. Greg Twietmeyer and Jarrod Schenewark; it was Twietmeyer who first heard about the program. “I saw it on TV,” he said.
Twietmeyer was watching the Big Ten Network and said he caught a promotional video during a commercial break from the University of Michigan showing the students and staff teaching kids with special needs how to ride bicycles.
“It was the camp,” he said. “Except the video was produced in a way to make it look like this was a Michigan thing, like they had developed the bike.”
The Marshall sports philosophy professor thought it was cool.
He said, “I try to impart to the kids that in kinesiology, in the study of sport or recreation, etc., we tend to get overly scientific. We look at everything as a technical problem and forget about the human being we’re addressing.”
The camp in Michigan addressed the mechanical problem of riding a bike and the human element of making it fun for kids who had no reason to believe it would be.
“These kids were smiling from ear to ear,” he said. “Initially, my thought was, ‘I got to get a copy of this video and use it in class.’”
While trying to track down the video, he quickly discovered the program didn’t belong to the University of Michigan and that other schools had hosted similar camps.
“I said there was no reason it couldn’t be hosted here at Marshall,” he said.
Twietmeyer said most people probably don’t think about it, but learning to ride a bicycle is an important milestone.
“It’s the first step toward independence,” he said.
However, it’s a milestone that children with special needs may never reach.
He explained, “Say you’ve got a 12-year-old son with autism or Down syndrome and he’s got a 5-year-old sister. You might be able to convince him to ride with the training wheels for a while — even if he’s getting nagged by the neighborhood kids — but as soon as his little sister learns to ride, that’s it. I mean, he’s never going to touch that bike again.”
It can be humiliating for an older child to watch a younger sibling easily do what they can’t. It can underline how they’re different from other children and cause them to withdraw, which Twietmeyer said can affect the overall wellbeing of not only the child but of the rest of the family too — if a family has a child who can’t ride a bike, would they be likely to get bikes for the rest of the family? Would they tend to encourage their other children to ride?
Aside from the emotional baggage of failing to learn a skill, riding a bike is just fun.
“It’s joyful,” Twietmeyer said. “Think of the self-confidence you get from that. It’s an amazing thing.”
So, he got backing from the dean, contacted iCan Shine, and they held their first camp in Huntington four years ago.
Emily Simpson and Kevin Krenshaw, a pair of students from George Mason University in Virginia, work as “floor supervisors” and help oversee the camps.
“There are 12 teams,” Krenshaw said, “working at 12 different camps all over the country and in Canada.”
The camps take pretty much anyone with any disability, provided they can walk on their own power.
Krenshaw said he’s seen mostly kids on the autism spectrum or who have Down syndrome, but that isn’t all, and they don’t limit the camp only to children.
“We see kids who are 8 years old, and I’ve worked with a 57-year-old man,” he said.
The program uses an ingenious system of specialized rubber rollers that take the place of the bicycle’s rear tire.
“The roller makes it difficult for the rider to tip over,” Krenshaw said.
“The rollers are like training wheels,” Simpson explained. “Over the five days we’re here, moving at the rider’s pace, we adjust the rollers until they’re ready to move to a tire.”
As the rider gets more confident and better at maintaining balance and control of the bike, the rollers are exchanged for versions that are tapered on the edges that increase the challenge and make it more like riding a regular bicycle.
There’s also a handle at the rear of the bike that volunteers can latch onto to help stabilize and steer, if necessary.
By the middle of the week, if the rider is on track, one of the trainers goes out with a rider on a tandem bike, which he steers and can help to peddle.
“It helps us assess where they are with learning the skill,” Krenshaw said.
Not long after that, many of the riders are on regular bikes, riding on their own.
“Most of the people who stick around for all five days can ride a bike on their own by the end,” Simpson said. “It’s about an 80 percent success rate.”
Each rider has their own bike and their own volunteer to assist and encourage the rider. Parents stick around too, to watch or to head off tantrums.
On the first day of the camp, there were few tantrums during the afternoon session.
The dozen or so kids in the gym for their first session didn’t even need much encouragement to climb onto the bikes as their parents and family sat, watching, in the nearby bleachers.
Proudly wearing an autism T-shirt, Diane Patrick explained that her son Konnor has been reluctant to get on a bike, but she thought riding a bicycle would be great for him.
The slender 8-year-old hardly slows down most days, has boundless energy, and Patrick acknowledged that he can be difficult to keep up with.
“It’s something else for him to do,” she said. “It’s really about conquering a fear for us. We’re excited to be here and hope he takes to it.”
James Vaughn watched his son, Brandon, climb onto a bicycle. The 12-year-old struggled with the pedals at first but was determined to stay in motion. Vaughn said he brought his son to the camp because Brandon had noticed others could ride.
“All the other kids were doing it,” he said. “He wanted to ride too.”
Some of the children took to the bikes immediately. Grinning broadly, they zipped across the gym floor with their individual volunteers chasing behind them, trying to keep up. A few began tentatively, like Vaughn’s son, but picked up speed after 20 or 30 minutes.
Leon Hart, one of the volunteers, laughed and said, “Yeah, they’ll run you around.”
The retired high school football coach and adaptive physical education teacher from Ashland, Kentucky, heard about the program last summer and signed on to assist riders at the camp.
“Most people sign up for one session,” he said. “I signed up for five.”
Hart said the experience was “unbelievably rewarding.”
“You see their reactions,” he said. “And that’s wonderful. You see their skill levels go up so quickly. They accomplish something and you know it makes a difference.”
Schenewark said, “I think this can really help influence the whole family. Once a child masters riding a bike, it could encourage the whole family to be more active. This just enlarged their world.”
Twietmeyer said the camp has done well in four years but could do a lot better. It has the support of the college, has volunteers and has funding.
Lalena Price, with Marshall’s communications office, said the camp costs $100 to attend for the full week, but scholarships are available based on need.
“We’ve never turned away a family or child who can’t pay,” she said.
They even have Matthew Herbert, from the TIPS (transportation injury prevention and safety) program at St. Mary’s Hospital, to come with free helmets for the kids.
“If you don’t ride a bike, why would you have a helmet?” He asked. “We’ve been very fortunate to be able to help out with that.”
What the camp lacks is campers. The camp is set up to handle a maximum of 40 riders per week, but Twietmeyer said they’re still a long way from hitting that mark.
“Our first year was sort of last minute,” he said. “We had about 10 or 12 kids, but the last couple of years, we’ve stayed in the 20s. I think we had 27 last year.”
This year they had 22 for the camp, which ended Friday.
Twietmeyer said they’ve tried everything. They’ve tried television and radio. They’ve sent fliers to special-education teachers, handed out leaflets at events, but he said they’re struggling with enrollment.
“It’s a good program. This is a good thing. There’s no reason we shouldn’t help everybody.”
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow on Twitter @thegazz, or call 304-348-5195.