They say it "takes a village" for some teaching tasks, and that certainly rings true in West Hartford during the annual weeklong "Lose the Training Wheels" camp.
This year, more than 30 special needs campers successfully learned to ride two-wheelers at Hall High School with the assistance of a few professionals from the national Lose the Training Wheels organization and more than 75 volunteers from schools throughout the area, the and , and even LL Bean's South Windsor store.
Fire Department Battalion Chief Matt Stuart was on hand Friday afternoon, the last day of the camp, observing department members assist the riders. He volunteered himself several years ago, and said that this year, the department has been even more supportive of the program – to the delight of the students who love seeing them arrive in the parking lot on the large pieces of apparatus.
The firefighter's union also donated $500 for shirts worn by campers and volunteers.
Three of the WHFD new recruits who found themselves running behind bikes this week. "We've gotten a lot of experience working with kids when they come to the firehouses," said Stuart, who added that many of the firefighters develop strong relationships with the kids they are teaching, and come back every day of the week to be sure their students succeed. Organizers said the firefighters' support has been "phenomenal" this year.
"It's gone really, really well this year," said Conard student Olivia Proietti, who has been working with the seven years ago. Her father, Tom Proietti, was one of the original organizers.
At the time, Lose the Training Wheels was 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.
To keep the program an annual event, Proietti and her friend Katie Newton formed the . They convinced their advisers, Kerry Massarro and Kristin Mangini, that they would be able to make the camp a reality even without the Kiwanis support, and along with about 14 other students they worked to find sponsors, organize teams of volunteers, and even ran a mini-golf booth and raffle at Celebrate West Hartford that netted about $1,000.
Director of Human and Leisure Services Jim Capodiece had praise for the work of the Conard students, and appreciated the dozens of volunteers with their "young legs" who were able to run behind the bicycles.
He hopes to be able to continue the camp in the future, with or without Kiwanis support. Although Proietti and Newton will be seniors this year, they have already found eager underclassmen waiting in the wings to take over the club in the future.
Capodiece was grateful for some significant anonymous donations to the program, as well as the support of sponsors like Bloomfield Bike Shop, West Hartford Firefighters Union, West Hartford Police Department, Bob's Discount Furniture, Sanbourn Mortgage, Courtyard Marriott, Highland Market, and Whole Foods.
"LL Bean not only donated, but have sent people here all week to volunteer," Capodiece said. He also praised the support of the town's fire and police departments who had volunteers assisting all week.
"This is an expensive program to run, and without the volunteers and financial support we would not be able to do it," he said. The program costs about $15,000, which includes the use of a specialized series of bicycles designed to gradually teach the students to balance on their own.
Camper fees cannot possibly cover everything, and the program is so unique (the only one in New England this year) that participants come from all over. Camp Director Sara Tamborello said that one family came from North Carolina and turned it into a vacation, and another was driving to West Hartford from New York every day.
Midway through the last day, Tamborello was hopeful that 100 percent of the campers would be riding unassisted. "Parents say that their kids refuse to ride for them, but they will do it for the volunteers," she said.
Doreen Brennan of Middletown stood in the back parking lot of Hall on Friday afternoon, watching her 12-year-old daughter Annie pedal around independently.
"She absolutely refused to try," Brennan said of previous attempts to get Annie to ride a bike. Annie remembered her brother falling off his bike and breaking his two front teeth, and she was afraid.
"That first day on the roller bike, it was amazing watching her sense of accomplishment," Brennan said. Annie had a tough time on Wednesday, but Brennan said she was right back out there on Thursday. "She was so proud of herself; it's just incredible to see the amazing progress, the pride in their faces."
Brennan said that all the teenagers volunteering were "just fabulous," and that they really knew how to talk to the campers.
Margaret, a 16-year-old camper, enjoyed flirting with all the high school boys as well as firefighters Neal Sinatro and Ben Coker. Loving the audience, she rode around the parking lot "just for you guys," she said.
Matt Cavalieri, a representative from the national Lose the Training Wheels organization, said that the success of West Hartford's camp was due to the volunteers. "They're here in great numbers, hustling around. It's great to see all these young kids working together, and having the fire department come out – that's awesome."
Tamborello's hopes for complete success were realized when all campers graduated as independent riders of two-wheelers by the end of the last session, receiving medals and goody bags, and posing for photos with their volunteer helpers.
For further information Lose The Training Wheels Camp, visit the town's website. Donations for next year's camp can be made to Lose the Training Wheels/Town of West Hartford, 50 S. Main Street, West Hartford, CT 06107.