For most children, learning to ride a two-wheeler is a normal rite of passage achieved early in the elementary school years. Some kids learn quickly and easily, while others are not quite as hasty to catch on. Most kids endure a few bruises and scrapes in the process, but eventually the proud parents let go of the back of the bike as their child pedals off down the street with a brand new independence.
For parents of special needs kids, the process can be much more complicated, but for the past six years, the Kiwanis Club of West Hartford has sought to change that by offering its Lose the Training Wheels Bike Camp.
The brochure reads: “Our dream is to empower children with special needs to learn to ride a conventional bike.” In cooperation with , the camp is designed to help children with special needs learn to independently ride a two-wheel bicycle.
Erin Conneely is a physical therapist who volunteered with the camp the first year and joined Kiwanis specifically because of this program. She is co-chairperson of the event this year along with Tom Proietti who has also been involved with the program since its inception.
“Kiwanis’ focus is on children,” said Conneely when asked how the club originated the idea for the Lose the Training Wheels Bike Camp. One of West Hartford’s club members is related to Dr. Richard E. Klein, a retired professor of mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois, who first developed the methodology for program through his research. This year, West Hartford is offering the only camp of this type in New England.
The program is run by volunteers – mostly local high school students – who sign up for one or more of the five, 1 ¼ hour-long sessions held during the week of the camp. Eight campers are accommodated in each of the five daily sessions.
Conneely works closely with the volunteers. “The best thing about being involved with them is seeing their patience with the campers,” she said.
The methods used in the program are based on Dr. Klein’s research and use adaptive bikes and methods from Lose the Training Wheels, Inc. and Rainbow Trainer. Campers progress through a series of different bicycles, with the ultimate goal being for the campers to ride a conventional bicycle, sans training wheels, by the end of the week.
According to the Kiwanis Club, “The methods and equipment used by the program have helped over 86% of the children ‘lose the training wheels’ in just five days.”
“The best thing about the program is the fact that it’s normalizing and not just adapting,” said Conneely. “[After completing the program] they can blend in and enjoy one of childhood’s favorite activities.”
In the words of one parent of a Lose the Training Wheels participant, “It was all I could do to keep from breaking into tears on Friday afternoon at the closing of the camp session, but since I had already wept on Thursday after seeing Ben ride alone around the gym, I promised the boys I would not embarrass them again. But, I start to weep again as I write this note, and each time I see Ben riding more and more confidently on his bicycle.”
This year, the Lose the Training Wheels camp will be held at from July 25 to July 29, and will benefit about 40 children ages 8-18 with special needs. Camp organizers are still soliciting sponsors and volunteers to make the program available to West Hartford resident participants at a cost of $125, and $225 for non-town residents.
For additional information and camper applications, visit www.westhartford.com/losethetrainingwheels. For camp, sponsorship and volunteer information, contact Tom Proietti or Erin Conneely at LTTW@westhartfordkiwanis.org.