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To ride brings pride: Kids with special needs learn to bike at New Lenox camp

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Updated: June 18, 2013 11:50AM



On the fifth and final day of a camp at which students with special needs were taught how to ride a bicycle, June Calhoun wore her bright red T-shirt emblazoned with the letters “GAP” — “God Answers Prayers.”

After four days of I Can Bike Camp at New Lenox School District 122’s Spencer Campus, her prayers had been answered. Her 8-year-old son, Joshua, actually rode his two-wheeled bike for a couple of minutes all by himself.

During the weeklong camp that ended Friday, she saw a “big change” in Joshua, who has Down syndrome, she said.

“When you have a child with special needs, you just hope for the best,” the Frankfort mom said.

Like others in the bike camp — staged by I Can Shine and hosted by Lincoln-Way Area Special Education District 843 — Joshua initially struggled to keep his balance, keep his feet on the pedals and watch where he was going — all very challenging tasks for kids with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.

But after five days of camp, their progress was obvious and their parents were amazed.

“I have never seen her so determined. You can just see her working on this,” Nikki Frisone, of Bartlett, said of her daughter, Francesca, also 8 years old.

Francesca has mild cerebral palsy and lacks muscle control on her right side. After the first day, she said, “It was kind of easy,” but her hands were sore from gripping the handlebars. By Friday, she was riding her bike with minimal assistance.

“To see your child learn a skill that quickly is remarkable,” District 843 director Sally Bintz said. She began to host this unique program with I Can Shine six years ago, when it was known as “Lose the Training Wheels.” It has since become part of District 843’s physical education curriculum.

I Can Shine travels throughout the summer to conduct these bike camps, and brings a fleet of specially adapted bikes designed by Richard E. Klein, a mechanical engineering professor, and his students at the University of Illinois.

The bikes have a roller bar instead of a rear tire, which provides more balance, and a rear handle so volunteers can lend a hand and keep the rider steady, as needed. The camp boasts an 80 percent success rate, with the remaining 20 percent making enough progress so that parents can pick up where the camp left off.

The camp is held every summer — in 75-minute sessions a day for five days, with about six or seven students in each of the five sessions, and at least two volunteers per rider. Participants must be at least 8 years old, weigh less than 220 pounds, be independently ambulatory and able to wear a helmet.

The New Lenox camp is first opened to district students, then the general public. It attracted families from near and far this year.

Parents were hoping to get their kids more active, overcome this physical challenge, gain more confidence and be able to do something as a family.

June and John Calhoun were looking for something to increase Joshua’s physical activity and his social activities.

“This is perfect. We live near Old Plank Road Trail,” June Calhoun said. “Learning to ride a bike is such a rite of passage for a child. It gives them freedom.”

“He loves the sense of accomplishment. He is just so excited to be on his bike. This is really a good concept,” John Calhoun said, admitting that Dad’s way of learning — and scraping knees — weren’t going to work with Joshua.

“There are a lot more challenges with this,” said Deana Myers, of Naperville, who taught her other children to ride a bike. But with cerebral palsy, her daughter Laney, 8, has no feeling in her left leg. With her twin sister and younger brother able to ride, she was so motivated that not even a bloody nose could stop her. She fell off her bike, but got right back on.

As her mother now watched Laney riding independently around the asphalt lot, she said, “And to think, her first doctor said she would never be able to play soccer or play the piano.”

Kim Bogert traveled with her two daughters, Sammy, 18, and Jayne, 14, from Lapeer, Mich., because New Lenox was the closest camp.

“There are so many things they are not able to do — like get a driver’s license. This is something we can all do,” said Bogert, who has four adopted children with Down syndrome.

Her daughters’ biggest challenge was “fear,” she said.

By Friday, both Sammy and Jayne were riding their own bikes, with a little bit of help. But she wanted to continue to help them at home.

Most families had their children’s bikes modified to fit their individual needs. Most had the rear handle installed. Others had foot straps added to the pedals, or higher handlebars.

Bogert plans to return next year with her 9-year-old daughter.

“This was incredible. The volunteers were so great. They never got frustrated. They were awesome,” she said.

This is the fourth year Aaron Vermeire, a Lincoln-Way East High School senior, has volunteered at the camp.

“I started doing it for community service hours but kept doing it because it was such a good experience. It’s fun seeing how much they improve,” he said.

For Dee Johnsten, who organized the event for District 843, these kids arrive on the first day with a bit of fear and apprehension, and a lack of typical motor skills. But within five days, they have learned to balance, pedal and steer, and are confident and smiling, she said.

“It’s just amazing,” she said. “This is my Christmas.”



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