Lose training wheels, gain sweet independence

Some of the bicycles zipped around the concrete floor at Cricket Arena so fast, it was hard to see who was riding.

What couldn't be missed Thursday were the sweaty helmeted-heads and proud, winded smiles. These 42 riders, between the ages of 7-18 with special needs, are taking part in the Lose The Training Wheels camp.

The program, created by Dr. Richard Klein in 1998, pairs campers with volunteers who help them use adaptive bikes with the goal of being able to ride a “normal” bike by the fifth day of camp. More than 2,000 children in more than 30 U.S. cities have participated.

The stories of campers' physical progress and confidence building are legion, says Charlotte camp director Jane Hunter. Parents share stories of first smiles, first words and changes in behavior for their children who live with myriad challenges: cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and autism, among others.

“By the end of the week, there's not a dry eye,” Hunter says.

Charlotteans Hunter and Claire Jordan brought the nonprofit camp to town in 2007. They quickly hit capacity for this week's session, which wraps up today, and had to refer some children to a similar camp in Georgia.

The $185 fee per child includes daily interaction with LTTW specialists, and a new specially outfitted bike, courtesy of Black Sheep Cycles and Cyclesport.

Susan McDonald's daughter Azalea, 10, and son, Alphonzo, 8, participated last year.

“It took us four years to teach them to ride,” she says while waiting on Thursday for son Charles, 7, to finish his session. “By the second day, they were riding. (Here) they don't have to be afraid of falling, they don't have the moms right there who have the fear.”

The program has helped her children find their independence, she says.

“Before, we had to make them ride their bikes,” she said. “Now, they're asking to go outside and ride.”

Mary-Ellen Harn of Charlotte says she used to have to strap son Scott's feet to the pedals of an adaptive bike, so seeing the 10-year-old zip around the concrete floor at Cricket on a two-wheeled bike with little assistance was “unbelievable, I never thought I'd see this.

“Scott's very determined,” she says. “He really wanted to learn. He wants to be like the other kids.”

The program can be transformative for entire families, says Kelly Sigman, who works as part of the national group that helps stage camps.

Sigman's son, Brandon, now almost 15, participated about three years ago.

“I saw my son start sleeping better, eating better,” he says. “It has had a huge impact on social steps, too. He can go and ride a normal bike with the kids in the neighborhood now.”