By Michele J. Kuhn
LINCROFT – Their faces told the story.
Wide smiles, grins, and the looks of sheer determination, concentration, and pride were everywhere as youngsters rode specially adapted bikes at Brookdale Community College during the Lose the Training Wheels Bicycle Camp for children with challenges.
“It’s a childhood rite of passage,” said Jane Kleiman. Bike riding “is something most of us take for granted … Now these kids can learn to ride, too.”
The camp, held on the college campus Monday, Aug. 20 through Friday, Aug. 24, offered 40 people, ages 8 to 20, the chance to learn to ride a bike. It’s a skill some parents have found difficult to teach but, with the use of the special bicycles, the nonprofit Lose the Training Wheels organization says its weeklong camps have an 80 percent success rate.
Kleiman, a Red Bank resident who coordinated the effort at Brookdale, has an 11-year-old son, Jackson Miller, who participated in the camp last year in Hoboken. Though he didn’t progress to a two-wheeler by the end of the session, Kleiman is hopeful he will this year.
The program, Kleiman said, often leads to a boost in self-confidence that helps the young riders to believe they can learn other skills. “They try other things,” she said. “They say, ‘If I can do that, I can try this.’ ” The bike camp also gives students a chance to socialize, improve their physical fitness, gain some independence, and interact with volunteers who quickly become their cheerleaders.
Those who attend the camp have a variety of disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, and ADHD. The participants need to be able to walk and step to the side to take part.
An important part of the camp is the bikes that are used by Lose the Training Wheels. Developed by Dr. Richard E. Klein and his students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the bikes have a regular front wheel but use a roller in the rear. The roller is cylindrical at the start. As the child’s skill and confidence improve, the rollers are progressively tapered, fatter in the middle and thinner at the ends, offering a more unstable ride that requires a certain amount of balance. There is also a handle at the back of the bike for volunteers to grab when riders begin to wobble too much. The roller bikes are used until the rider is comfortable enough to ride a two-wheeler – without training wheels. A tandem bike is also used for some of the young students.
The children spend 75 minutes a day for five days learning the new skill. There were five sessions a day with eight students each and many volunteers assisting the riders.
As one young man pedaled past a group of moms waiting on the bleachers and yelled “Hi, Mom!” it was hard to tell which mother was his because they were all smiling.
“They love it,” said Michelle DePasquale of Edison whose sons Emilio, 9, and Anthony, 12, were learning to ride in the 8:30 a.m. class.
For her boys, the class offered a confidence boost, an opportunity to focus on a fun task, and a chance to socialize. “It allows me to give them an avenue to go out and play like typical kids,” DePasquale said.
She also liked the idea that bike riding is a three-season sport and that the skill is being taught by volunteers who were instructed how to help by the Lose the Training Wheels program.
“To have others working with them is great. It allows the volunteers to tell them things that I can but that they won’t listen to because I’m the mom. [The volunteers] tell them things and they listen to them,’’ she said.
Lynda Mazzella of Howell said having her 14-year-old daughter Courtney learn to ride a bike was on her list of things for Courtney to accomplish. “I was sad when kids in the neighborhood were out riding bikes and she wasn’t,” Mazzella said.
Courtney, whose fine-motor skills are poor, was gaining strength during her camp sessions and was happily pedaling around the gym.
“This is a confidence and self-esteem builder,” said Mazzella, who has made sure her daughter has been introduced to many skills, sports, and experiences. “I don’t want her to fear things.”
Linda Argiro of Belford was pleased with the progress her son, Vincent, 19, was making. She hopes bike riding will be added to his set of activities to help him stay fit and avoid the heart problems which have been part of their family’s history.
Lose the Training Wheels was begun in 1991 in Canada, according to Andrea Patrick, floor supervisor for the nonprofit organization. Last summer, 86 camps were held in the United States and Canada.
Patrick, who has been with the program the past three summers, has seen exciting results. “It affects the riders, their families, everyone,” she said. “Last week we heard of a rider who asked his father to teach him how to cast a line and fish because he had learned to ride a bike and wanted to try something else.”
During the first day of the Brookdale camp, Kleiman said she saw what the program can mean to young riders and their families. As one camper was riding around the gym, she heard one of his siblings, a 7-year-old, say, “Hey, Mom, he looks like a different kid out there!”
Kleiman’s wish for her son Jackson at the end of the week is that he develops the skill to ride with his family, including 4-year-old sister Mina, on the bike paths of Sandy Hook to visit his favorite lighthouse.