According to research, more than 80 percent of people with autism and 90 percent of people who have Down Syndrome never learn to ride a bike. The sad thing is, some of them can and yet, they never get the opportunity to — as our guest blogger Andrea Felgenhauer tells us, “believe they can fly.” Andrea pens “Therapy on Wry,” a wonderful blog about a mom in St. Louis, Mo., who finds humor in raising two kids — one with autism and one without.
I am not a quitter by any stretch of the imagination. Once I begin a project — I see it through to the end. No matter how much blood, sweat and tears are required. My biggest roadblock is often in the starting. As a parent, raising a child with special needs, I’m conditioned to come up with creative ways to help my child learn and do all the things I see his peers doing. But sometimes, the road stretched before me seems all uphill.
It’s those times that I’m reminded of the words from American Poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We are limited, not by our abilities, but by our vision.”
And, it’s also about this time I must remind my hard-headed self that I’m not supposed to be doing this alone.
A couple of months ago Noah’s occupational therapist asked me why Noah wasn’t riding a bike. Her question caught me offguard and I responded with something like, “Are you crazy?”
Seriously, we’re talking about a kid who regularly stubs his toe or bumps his head walking from his bedroom to the kitchen. The idea of teaching him to ride a bike on two wheels seemed like a prescription for an ER visit. But, then she told me about a program called “I Can Shine” (formally known as Lose the Training Wheels). I was hesitant, but decided to investigate the program. When I went online I learned that together the Down Syndrome Association of Greater St. Louis (DSAGSL) and the Lydia Faith Cox Foundation would be hosting the five day bike camp in my area. I spoke with Erin Suelmann, DSAGSL’s Program Director, who shared some encouraging stats…the “I Can Shine” program boasts an 80% success rate.
I liked those odds.
The program costs $150 but because of the generosity of both the DSAGSL and the Lydia Faith Cox Foundation, included a brand new bike and custom-fitted helmet for each camper.
On the first day Noah was a little apprehensive. “Why are we doing this?” he asked.
“Because it’s going to be great! YOU are going to learn to ride a bike!”
Noah was really worried about falling. I assured him that he would have two spotters, one on either side of him, who would be making sure he was safe. Camp was held at South Technical High School in Sunset Hills. After we signed in and he received his official “I Can Shine” t-shirt, we headed over to the bike helmet-fitting area. Two representatives from Children’s Hospital were on hand to make sure each camper had a perfectly fit helmet. While Noah waited in line, he was introduced to Steph and Heather, the two volunteers who would be spotting and cheering Noah on all week. Immediately, Steph began breaking the ice by finding ways to interject Star Wars into their conversations. I’d forgotten that earlier, when I’d initially signed Noah up for camp, that I had provided them with a list of Noah’s likes.
I breathed a sigh.
We were off to a good start. After Noah received his helmet, the three of them headed to the gym and the team put Noah on one of their special “roller bikes”. Each roller bike has been handcrafted and designed by retired, mechanical engineering professor and program founder, Richard Klein. That first day, I watched Noah’s confidence grow with each lap he made around the gym — all the while his two spotters were running alongside him — laughing and eager to listen to Noah share his vast knowledge of Star Wars trivia during the 75 minute session.
That evening at dinner, when it was Noah’s turn to say what he was thankful for, he shared, “I’m thankful for bike camp.”
I pushed down the lump that had suddenly taken over all the space in my throat and squeaked, “me too.”
The next day, Noah was excited about going to camp and eagerly jumped on a bike. By day three, he was up on two wheels! Between running (literally) his spotters ragged as he pedaled with more confidence and speed! … Noah really enjoyed leaving his mark as he squeezed his brakes hard to make tire tracks at the end of the straightway.
“How long was that one?” he inquired.
Boys … everything is a competition.
Day four was devoted to turning. He fell once and I held my breath but kept my feet planted to the spot as the volunteers were quick to get Noah back up on his bike to try … try again.
As I watched Noah ride and Steve snap enough pictures for us to create a stop action movie … I spent a little time talking to Suzie Risher, founder of the Lydia Faith Cox Foundation, named after her daughter who died three years ago.
I marveled at this woman. She could have easily (and I wouldn’t blame her a bit!) curled up and let her grief swallow her up. I cannot imagine a grief larger than when a parent loses a child. But, she didn’t. And, because of her vision to see beyond today and even tomorrow — she has given myself and many other parents the opportunity to watch our children soar.
I believe Lydia’s spirit was with us at camp, giving each one of our children invisible wings … now it’s up to us not to clip them with thoughts of doubt.
Today, after another successful ride with his Dad, Noah came in to tell me that he rode down our hill for the first time … “and I went FAST!” He told me he kept thinking, “I believe I can fly.”
Suzie is hoping to grow her camp so as to offer, twice as many children the opportunity to learn to ride a bike. More money and more volunteers are needed. She is always looking for bike spotters. Children as young as 12 can work as spotters when riders are starting out on the roller bikes. However, spotters must be at least 16 to work with riders who have moved outside the gym training area and are up on two wheels. To find out about ways you can help support this charity, please visit the Lydia Faith Cox Foundation Facebook page.
Visit the I Can Shine website to learn more about programs happening in your area or to host a program yourself.