It’s Thursday, and the third session of Day 4 at the Kiwanis Club’s at is under way. A large area is cordoned off with yellow tape in the main parking lot, and volunteers run behind “cruiser” style two-wheelers which are being balanced, pedaled, and steered — pretty much independently — by the children riding them.
This doesn’t sound like an unusual occurrence, but the scene was very different on Day 1. The participants in this camp program — a joint effort between the Kiwanis Club of West Hartford and — did not arrive able to independently ride a two-wheeler.
“I had a child on the first day who had to be lifted onto his bike,” said physical therapist Erin Conneely, a Kiwanis Club member and co-chair, along with Tom Proietti, of West Hartford’s Lose the Training Wheels program. “Today, Day 4, he’s riding independently outside.”
Lose the Training Wheels is designed to teach children with special needs, ages 8-18, how to ride a two-wheeler sans training wheels. The methods used in the program are based on research conducted by Dr. Richard E. Klein, a retired professor of mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois.
West Hartford Kiwanis Club member Karen Brylle is related to Klein, and first suggested that the club sponsor the program as part of its mission of “changing the world one child and one community at a time.”
West Hartford’s program, which is one of only three being conducted in New England this year, and the only one in Connecticut, incorporates 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 by the end of the week.
In addition to children, adults have also participated in the program, including a 70-year-old man who was recovering from a stroke.
This group of campers is from all over the region, including one participant from New Hampshire and several from Massachusetts. Each story is more inspiring than the last.
“It’s just such a good opportunity,” said one mom who has been driving to West Hartford every day from Southern Connecticut. She said that her 10-year-old daughter, Coral, ran to get on the bike this morning, despite taking a few spills the previous day. Volunteer John Dinius from West Hartford, remarked at how increasingly confident and excited Coral had become each day of the program.
Rachael Wolf of Bloomfield Bicycle, which is a sponsor of the program, said, “I get goose bumps; it doesn’t matter how many years I do this. It makes us all so grateful for what we have.”
Mark Kimzey is the program’s bike technician. He lives in St. Louis, has a master’s degree in Adaptive Physical Education, and has worked with Lose the Training Wheels every summer for the past four years. Kimzey explained the program’s unique system, which starts the campers off on bikes with a special roller attachment.
Riders begin in the gym, on the roller-equipped adaptive bicycles. Increasingly tapered rollers are gradually incorporated so that the rider has to use more of his/her own balance. The next step is a two-wheeler with an attached handle in the gym, and within a few days most are riding independently in the parking lot.
“My own son learned to ride in this program, and now can do family bike rides on the trails,” said Kimzey. He quoted a greater than 80 percent success rate. “Lots of families have tried to teach their kids and found it virtually impossible. We’ve made these children succeed where they otherwise couldn’t.”
Conneely said that one of this year’s best success stories was that of Davin, an 8-year-old from Colchester whose dad is serving overseas in the Navy. His mom was unable to teach him to ride a bike. “We were able to change his life,” Conneely said.
A.J. Budney, who is part of the national Lose the Training Wheels organization, said that a brother and sister were together in one of this week’s sessions. “The sister had tried and failed so many times but here, because of this new environment, the safety net, and our high expectations, she got a taste of success early on.” Her brother was riding independently about five minutes later, Budney added.
Most of the volunteers are high school students, including 15-year-old Olivia Proietti, who will be a junior at Conard this fall and is the daughter of one of the program co-chairs. You have to be at least 15 to support a rider on your own, but younger volunteers can help in other ways.
Olivia, who has been working with the program since it began six years ago, said, “They’re all success stories.” Her most emotional experience was with a mom who fell into her arms, crying, because her child had learned to ride. “My dad taught a kid one year, and he came back the next year to help,” Olivia added.
Some members of the also volunteer with the program, including bike officers Shane McAvay and Brett Balisciano. “We just spot them; once their foundation is set they’re off and running,” said McAvay. Balisciano was touched by one mother who had pretty much given up on teaching her child to ride before Lose the Training Wheels. “She was crying,” said Balisciano, when she saw her child’s new independence.
Kristin Ward of Ridgefield has been driving to West Hartford every day with her 10-year-old daughter Hannah. “We’ve been trying for years, with lots of tear and lots of fears,” said Ward of previous bike training. “It’s unbelievable, really amazing,” Ward said.
“That’s her bike now; it’s a big confidence booster,” Ward said, as Hannah pedaled around the parking lot on her new pink two-wheeler.