WANTAGE, NJ – It was not your usual summer camp in the gymnasium at High Point Regional High School this week. Sparta resident Mitch Morrison organized an iCan Bike week long camp to allow children with disabilities to learn how to ride a two wheel bicycle.
“It was fun,” Newton High School student Emma Vitrell said with a big smile.
“She said she was the first one to ride,” Emma’s mother Jennifer Vitrell said with pride.
Ryan Klein was also a proud new rider. “I would encourage other people to do it,” Ryan said, adding he will be riding at home after they get his new bike.
Ryan’s parents were in awe of the program.
“It is unbelievable what they have done,” Kathy and Rick said. “You don’t want to let go. As parents you don’t have the guts to let go but what they’ve done in three days is amazing.”
Kayla, a student at Newton High School said she “rode four bikes” in the program. She said she had not ridden a bicycle since she was eight-years-old.
ICan Bike instructor Sammi said it is more than teaching people how to ride a bike.
“When you see people up on two wheels it makes it all worth it,” Sammi said. “The independence factor, feeling the wind on their face. It’s not just about bike riding.”
Sammi said parents have told her about changes they have seen in their children after successfully completing the program. They talk about inclusion and increased confidence that translates in all aspects of their lives, Sammi said.
The camp hosted approximately 20 children with at least two volunteers per bike rider. The adaptive program has riders go through a series of stages until they are riding on their own.
Many begin on a tandem bike to learn how to pedal and steer while gaining confidence about going fast, according to iCan Bike instructor Kevin. They move to a bike with a roller in place of the back wheel, rather than traditional training wheels.
The rollers are changed out, getting progressively more tapered as the riders gain skill and confidence. They learn to keep peddling even if the bike wobbles. They learn to steer through the wobbling the teacher said.
“It gives them a win,” Kevin said. The bikes also have a handle extending from behind the seat, "just in case."
The bicycles, developed and built by Richard Klein and Rainbow Trainers in Alton, Illinois, have been used for 20 years to teach the skill to people with autism and downs syndrome all over the country.
With at least two volunteers for each rider, they can develop trust with the volunteers throughout the day.
Volunteers Judy and Carl were there every day, greeting participants helping where needed. Carl, chairman of the Free Wheelers Foundation and Judy met Morrison when they were all volunteering at the Revolution Ramble bike ride in Morristown.
They decided to help with the iCan Bike program, Judy said, because of Morrison. Members of a club that has weekly rides, biking is an important part of their lives and they want to share that with others.
They will join Morrison at the Tour de Farm Sussex County ride. Participant from the iCan Bike program will also be invited accroding to Morrison. The modified Toufor iCan Bike graduates will allow the new riders to bike around the fair grounds and follow the map of the farm tour to explore by car with their families.
Morrison said the camp was possible because of a donation by Thorlabs.
"Historically, Thorlabs has been very supportive of children, especially those with developmental disabilities," Thorlabs spokesperson Jamie LaCouture said . "Our Thorlabs culture is also very active and passionate about athletics. We dedicate not only money but volunteer time to a number of programs in these two areas and the iCan Bike camp seemed like the perfect opportunity to expand on that. I even personally saw a video of one of our employees’ nieces learning to ride a bike through the program. It was an added bonus."
High Point Director of Curriculum Seamus Campbell, also a Sparta resident who knows Morrison, offered to host the event at his school when Sparta said their school was not available.
“We want the school to be a centerpiece of the community,” Campbell said. “Hosting was a no-brainer.”
When they finished their lesson, culminating in successfully and independently riding a two wheeler, the newly minted bike riders congratulated each other with hugs and high fives.
"Good job," Ryan told Emma. "You did it."
Emma put her arm around her "bff since preschool" Kayla with a smile. Emma was looking forward to shopping for her new bike on the way home from camp. It was going to be "mint green with a basket on the front."
Kayla said she too hoped to get a new bike sometime because she wanted to keep riding at home.
The iCan Bike initiative is part of the iCan Shine organziation that teaches bike riding, swimming and dancing to disabled children. It is a 501 (c)3 that relies on donations to cover the costs of the instructors, as well as transporting the instructors and adapted bicycles around the country. Morrison housed the instructors at his home and had the use of facilities donated.