For the past six years, a group of West Hartford volunteers has been helping children with special needs learn to ride two-wheelers without training wheels. This year, the program’s funding is in jeopardy and two of those volunteers, Olivia Proietti and Katie Newton, are spearheading a campaign to make certain that the camp will continue to run annually.
Each year during the month of July, children with special needs, between the ages of 8 and 18, convened at for one week to take part in the camp.
Based on research by Dr. Richard E. Klein, a retired professor of mechanical engineering from the University of llinois, the program is one of only three in New England and the only one in Connecticut. The five-day camp program incorporates methods from Lose the Training Wheels, Inc., a non-profit charitable organization that runs over eighty of the camps across the United States and Canada, and adaptive bicycles supplied by Rainbow Trainer.
With the help of specially trained adults and volunteers, many of them Conard High School students, campers begin in the school’s gymnasium, progressing in their skills using a series of specifically outfitted bicycles. The ultimate goal is that by last day, they will be steering and pedaling a conventional two-wheeler independently outside in the school’s parking lot.
In past years, the annual program has been a joint effort between and the . However, the Board of Directors of the Kiwanis Club voted to make Lose the Training Wheels a bi-annual program, rather than annual, requiring those dedicated to the cause to come up with other means of funding so that more children may learn the benefits of riding a two-wheel bicycle this coming July.
Conard High School junior Olivia Proietti has volunteered with the camp since it began six years ago. Junior Katie Newton got involved last summer. They are determined that the program, which had been an integral part of their own school experience, will have its seventh season.
“I grew up helping out with the camp and it has brought me closer to these kids in a way that I never could have before,” remarks Olivia, whose father, Tom, served as the president of the Kiwanis Club and was instrumental in bringing the camp to West Hartford.
Olivia, who also volunteers with Unified Theater, says that she gains as much from the experience as the children do. “It’s really great for me helping them learn a life skill and get confidence and feel like they are big, normal kids. I could not let the program end.”
Her best friend Katie Newton began volunteering last year and she agrees that working at the camp is extremely gratifying. “It was interesting to see how when they came in they really had no skill in knowing how to ride these bikes. They were too scared to get up on them. Within only five days, most of them were riding around the parking lot with us running behind chasing them. It was a very rewarding thing to watch them.”
Conard High School guidance counselor Kristin Mangini has worked closely with the girls since they approached her last December with the idea to carry on with the program. Working in conjunction with Conard Physical Education teacher Kerry Massarro and West Hartford Director of Leisure Services Jim Capodiece, Mangini says that back in December, they sat down with Olivia and Katie and discussed what type of budget the camp would require and how big a commitment it would take.
Initially, recalls Mangini, she, Massarro and Capodiece were skeptical that the girls could pull it off.
The camp is very costly to run, with the transportation of the equipment and the adult trainers averaging $15,000. Yet they were impressed with how well the girls were prepared for the presentation, with a list in hand of previous sponsors that they would approach.
Before they were willing to sign a contract with Lose the Training Wheels organization, the adults set monetary milestones for the students. Olivia and Katie formed a school club called “Kids Helping Kids,” dedicated to raising the funds. It was soon apparent that the eager student volunteers had stepped up to the challenge.
Working closely with the Leisure Services department, since early January the students have dedicated themselves tirelessly to getting the word out about the program, locking in $6,000 of funding so far through various sponsors and donations. Several other significant sponsors have expressed interest and Capodiece states that he is very optimistic that they will commit fully to the program, as well.
LL Bean has offered to donate adult volunteers to help with the campers. In addition, a booth has been lined up at Celebrate West Hartford where items will be given away in a ticket drawing for those who make a donation.
The girls have also made it a priority to reach out to children with special needs and their parents to encourage them to sign up for the camp. Olivia even attended a conference that caters to children with special needs, handing out info about the camp to parents. It is vital to attract as many children as possible because the registration fees also help to offset the cost of the program.
Mangini is very impressed with Olivia and Katie’s commitment to the kids with special needs, noting how “passionate” they are about the camp.
Katie agrees with Mangini’s description.“We are both very determined and passionate people. We set our eyes on something and decide that it has to be done and no one is going to tell us otherwise. We took this as an opportunity and when the Kiwanis Club said they were going to possibly make it a bi-annual thing, we knew if we let that happen the program would probably die out. It was really important for us to save that experience for the kids.”
“This program was dead,” remarks Capodiece. He credits Olivia and Katie and all of the other students with giving the expensive program a new life. “Without their commitment and enthusiasm, it would not have happened. Little by little it is all coming together. We are very grateful.”
Looking ahead, Olivia states that if this year’s event flourishes, successors are already being groomed to take over when the girls graduate. “I’ve brought in a lot of sophomores so that we can train them this year and next year. They can start to take over my role. I’ve learned a lot of what I do from my Dad so if I can pass on that information to them, than it can carry through.”
For further information about Lose The Training Wheels Camp can be found on the Town's website. To donate money for the camp, send a check made out to Lose the Training Wheels/Town of West Hartford to 50 S. Main Street, West Hartford, CT 06107.