Volunteer program teaches children with disabilities to ride bicycles

Lose The Training Wheels, a nonprofit based in Virginia, comes to Maryland for the first time

August 06, 2010|By Sarah Tan, The Baltimore Sun

When twin brothers Reid and Sam Shafley, 16, first tried to teach their younger brother Will to ride a bike, they thought it was hopeless. Will is considered to be in the autism spectrum, which makes some tasks difficult.

"We had tried to teach him for many years, but we just couldn't get him to ride a bike," Reid said.

Then their mother, Sue Ann Shafley, found Lose The Training Wheels, a small, nonprofit volunteer camp based in Virginia that travels around the country with a fleet of special bicycles. The camp promises to teach any child with a disability to ride a two-wheel bike within a week.

Although the camp did not offer any locations in Maryland, the Shafleys were so determined to give Will a chance to learn that they sent him to a camp in New York two years ago. When he returned after a week, the results were astonishing.

"We were really questioning if he was even going to be able to ride a bike, but after he came back, he just got on a bike and was able to do it," Reid said.

After they saw the effect the camp had on their brother, Reid and Sam decided to establish a Lose The Training Wheels camp in Maryland for families that cannot afford to send their children out of state. They were able to team up with the Chesapeake Speech School in Elkridge, which their mother directs, and the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, which offered its gym to the program.

Lose The Training Wheels uses special bicycles that have rollers instead of a back wheel. The children ride for 75 minutes each day for a week, and as they become more comfortable, the rollers are switched with others that are more tapered. This gradually teaches them to balance on a two-wheel bike.

Though learning to ride a bike seems trivial to many people, it can be a big step for those with disabilities, Shafley said.

"It's important for so many reasons: It's a rite of passage, it's a fun family activity. … It also empowers them," she said. "A lot of the kids at the camp have tried to ride a bike numerous times and failed, so they come here with their confidence defeated. So, it's very empowering when they're finally able to learn. And to take that and extrapolate from there in terms of other aspects of their life, that's a great thing."

Christian Manna, 11, who lives in Ohio, came to Owings Mills to stay with his grandmother Patti Koch so he could attend the camp.

"He's tried [to ride] before, but he's resisted it," Koch said. "They help them get confident."

After three days at the camp, Christian can ride a two-wheeler.

"We've never done anything where he's learned something this quickly," Koch said. "It's amazing, and he's amazed himself."

The program has about an 85 percent success rate, according to Lisa Ruby, the director of operations.

"It's been pretty cool since I'm on the last roller size," said Sam Silverman, 9, of Elkridge, who has a genetic muscular disorder that made it difficult to learn to ride. "I'm about to be a two-wheeler. Maybe once I vacation with my dad at Virginia Beach I'll rent a bike."

"It was frustrating for him [before], scary," said his grandmother Diane Boyer. "It's amazing now. Your heart races."

This year, the camp had about 40 participating children with 50 volunteers to supervise. Shafley said she hopes the camp will be back next year.

Those interested in participating in the program in Maryland should visit the speech school's website, at chesapeakespeechschool.org.


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