WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Recreation Department will give people with physical and mental disabilities the opportunity to learn to ride a bicycle when it hosts a five-day instructional camp at Liberty Middle School from Aug. 1 through 5.
The department’s “FOOTSTEPS for the Exceptional Child” program has partnered with the national iCan Shine organization to host one of the nonprofit’s iCan Bike camps, which uses specially designed bicycles to teach those who are disabled how to balance and ride two-wheeled bikes independently.
By doing so, FOOTSTEPS program coordinator Candy Myrick said participants will come away with a recreational activity they can do with able-bodied peers. But above all, Myrick said learning how to ride a bike can give riders an unparalleled sense of achievement.
“Once they accomplish this one thing, it gives them the enthusiasm and outlook that they can accomplish other things,” Myrick told the West Orange Chronicle in a July 15 phone interview.
One would not think that learning to ride a bicycle would be such a big deal. After all, it is practically a rite of passage for most youth, a hallmark memory of almost every American childhood. But as Myrick explained, people with physical and mental disabilities usually have trouble with balance and other motor skills essential to bike riding. As a result, learning how to stay on top of a two-wheeler can be extremely difficult for them, and many never do learn.
So when Myrick came across the iCan Bike program’s unique take on bicycle training — which boasts an 80-percent success rate — she knew it would be a perfect fit for the FOOTSTEPS initiative’s mission of providing recreational opportunities for all community members. Using a grant from the Lefty Boland Foundation, Myrick arranged to bring the camp to West Orange and quickly amassed a list of willing participants. In fact, as of press time July 19, she said only two slots remain open; the rest have already been taken up by disabled persons ranging in age from 9 to 27, she said.
These participants will undergo bicycle training entirely different from the lessons Mom or Dad could provide at home, according to iCan Shine founder and executive director Lisa Ruby. That is because the camp uses roller bikes, or bicycles with a stabilizing rubber “rolling pin” for a back wheel, that can be adapted to fit the balance needs of a rider.
Riders are equipped with long rollers at the start of camp so they can hone their sense of balance with the help of two volunteers on either side of them. Once a rider becomes adept at riding with the long roller, the camp staff switches out the roller with one more tapered at the ends, without the riders knowing. Ruby said riders rarely notice this change since their muscle memory has learned balance, and they adjust to the wobblier bike automatically. Camp staff will continue to switch out the rollers for progressively shorter ones throughout the five-day program, until the riders have switched to a regular two-wheeled bicycle by the end.
It is this system that has enabled iCan Bike to successfully teach approximately 20,000 disabled people across 35 states and four provinces to ride a bike since 2007, Ruby said. And those helped suffered from all types of disabilities. The organization’s founder said 42 percent of its participants last year were autistic, 26 percent had Down syndrome, 5 percent had cerebral palsy and the other 27 percent had disabilities stemming from traumatic brain injuries, strokes and more. West Orange’s camp is open to everyone ages 8 and older as long as they are ambulatory, can side-step quickly to both sides, have an inseam measurement of 20 inches and weigh no more than 220 pounds.
Being able to help all different types of disabled people through her organization is highly rewarding, Ruby said. She said she has watched participants who did not believe bike riding would be possible for them master the skill and think differently about what else they can do. And parents have also seen the change in their children. One father even told Ruby that his daughter insisted on swimming in the family pool without a life jacket for the first time immediately after learning to ride a bicycle through iCan Bike.
“It gives them tremendous confidence and self esteem,” Ruby told the Chronicle in a July 15 phone interview. “It’s a lot more than just learning how to ride a bicycle.”
No iCan Bike camp would be possible without volunteers to work with the participants, though. According to Myrick, West Orange currently has 15 volunteers, but is in need of 40 to cover 20 campers. Anyone age 16 and older is eligible to help with the program, as long as they can spare 90 minutes per day during the five-day period. They will also have to attend a 45-minute training session on July 31, to learn how to use the equipment and how the camp will operate.
Ruby encouraged West Orange residents to volunteer, saying that being part of the program is a powerful experience. The founder said she has seen some volunteers form long-term connections with the campers with whom they work, and some have even gone on to work for the iCan Shine organization as staff members. Above all, she said helping others is a reward in itself.
“It’s a life-changing experience to change someone’s life,” Ruby said. “We’ve heard from so many volunteers that this is like nothing they’ve ever done before.”
Myrick hopes the volunteers will also benefit by learning that the disabled are really no different than the rest of the population. Though they may have disabilities that cause them to struggle physically, she said they still have the same desire to succeed as their able-bodied peers. And that is why FOOTSTEPS will continue to offer programs like iCan Bike, she said.
“We feel that they are part of our community just as everyone else is,” Myrick said, adding that FOOTSTEPS also recently launched Sunday morning pool hours for special-needs children and their families. “Every child should have the same opportunities to have fun that you would as a child regardless of a disability. That is our goal — to make sure that every child has the opportunity to be a child.”
To register for the program as a rider or volunteer, email [email protected]