By John Patterson
Considering it’s summer, there’s a lot of activity at Tuscarora High School this week: young cyclists are pedaling around the gym with volunteers trotting alongside them.
Indoor riding is the first phase of the iCan Bike camp, which helps children with mental and physical disabilities learn how to ride a bicycle. The camp has come to Loudoun for the first time through a partnership between The Arc of Loudoun at Paxton Campus, Tuscarora’s Husky Buddies club supporting special needs students, and iCan Shine, the nonprofit that runs the program.
The camp has 35 riders, and may expand to 40 throughout the week. It’s open to riders with any disability as long as they can walk.
Parents stay to monitor their children’s progress, and consult with camp counselors on how to continue riding at home. Meanwhile, participants progress through a system meant to culminate in full cycling independence.
“The goal is, at the end of the week, for as many kids as possible to actually ride their own bike,” said Eileen Schaffer, administrative director of ALLY Advocacy Center, a branch of Paxton Campus.
In five days, riders progress through three bike models. They start on “roller bikes,” an original design by iCan Bike founder Dr. Richard Klein. The specialized bikes have rollers on the back that add stability. The rollers are adjustable so riders progressively depend more on their own balance.
“We try not to let them know what’s happening because change is scary and not a lot of riders are accepting of it. So we say, ‘Hey, go take a water break’ or ‘go take a pit stop,’ … and then I’ll change the bike out,” camp bike technician Kelly Barns said.
After cycling inside on roller bikes, riders hop on a two-seated bike outside with a volunteer. Once proficient there, the budding cyclists ride a traditional bike with a handle added to the back so volunteers can still support them.
The camp’s sponsors and counselors say their love for those in the special needs community motivated them to contribute. The camp costs $10,000 to host, and a quarter of that funding came from the Leesburg Moose Lodge. Lodge administrator Al Erickson and his wife and fellow lodge member Jenny Erickson are at the camp all week as their 16-year-old daughter takes part as a camper.
“It’s always really cool to help and to be able to support the community with the Moose Lodge, but the biggest thing is we have a special needs daughter. … We’ve been trying for years to get her to be able to ride a bike,” Erickson said.
Early in the week, his daughter seemed to be getting the hang of it.
“For a parent with a special needs child this is a dream come true, to be able to have her ride a bike, to be able to have the flexibility, to be able to be independently mobile, to go on a countryside bike ride with the family,” Erickson said, “it’s a dream come true.”
Working with the campers is personal for Barns, too. A speech disability kept her from talking until later in life, so she has always had friends with disabilities.
“I’ve always had a passion to just help and serve,” she said. “I’m trying to give every rider a chance to ride.”
iCan Shine is hosting more than 80 iCan Bike summer camps nationwide and in Canada, and has an 80 percent success rate of riders independently operating their own bike after the program.
John Patterson is an intern with Loudoun Now. He’s studying English and economics at the University of Virginia.