A great article about Bike First showed up in the Oregonian recently. We’d love to share it with you so you can read it too!
Pedaling for joy
By Heidi Swift, special to The Oregonian
August 08, 2009, 9:00AM
I can’t remember what I was asking Ann Donaca Sullivan when she interrupts me in the middle of an interview question. I can’t remember — because it isn’t important.
“I’m sorry,” she explains as she begins to bolt across the gymnasium floor at Concordia University, “Kate is going to try a real bike — oh, my God, this is huge!”
A sense of urgency is in her voice as she tucks her clipboard under one arm and begins clapping. An army of volunteers follows suit, shouting, “Go, Kate! You got it! Go!”
Kate Eames goes. She is a tiny girl on an equally tiny bike, and one of her three dedicated volunteers has just let go of the handle on the back of her seat. At age 10, she’s riding. On her own. For the first time ever. The gym erupts in cheers; Kate’s autism is momentarily forgotten as her face translates a subconscious acknowledgment of imminent adventure and freedom.
She can pedal a bike.
I’m too stunned to even put my camera to my face to make a photo. Instead I stand perfectly still with my hand over my mouth.
“You must be Kate’s mother,” a woman in a volunteer T-shirt says. It’s only then that I realize I am crying. And while I fumble to explain that, no, actually I am not Kate’s mother (just a sappy cyclist with a soft heart), I realize that every question I could have ever asked Ann Donaca Sullivan has just been answered.
I now understand exactly what this program, Bike First, is all about.
What it is: Bike First hosts weeklong camps that help disabled children (and adults — this year’s oldest participant was 57) to take a solo flight by bicycle. As a nonprofit affiliate of a program called Lose the Training Wheels, Bike First uses a unique type of adapted bike designed and built by Richard Klein, a retired mechanical engineering professor at the University of Illinois. Bike First runs a single five-day camp every summer in Portland.
How it started: After watching her son, Cody, who lives with Down syndrome, struggle to learn to ride a bike, Ann Donaca Sullivan took matters into her own hands. Since she couldn’t figure out how to get Cody over to the Lose the Training Wheels camps (held mostly on the East Coast), she decided to bring the program straight to Cody. Along with co-founder and friend Patty Verzani, she started Bike First in 2006 “on a prayer and a shoestring budget.” (Cody has since become a bicycle “master” and even rides to and from school by himself.)
Why it works: The adapted bicycles utilize a wide “roller” with tapered ends, instead of a rear wheel. Starter rollers have a wide middle surface area to balance on,but the tapered edges let children learn how to lean (as opposed to training wheels, which don’t teach principles of balance). It’s a simple idea with an astonishing rate of success: 80 percent of kids with disabilities who go through the one-week camp learn to ride on their own by the final day.
Why it’s special: Bike First is more than a bike camp for disabled children — it’s a family, a support network, a cheerleading squad and a one-stop miracle zone. Every participant takes his or her first solo pedal strokes to the sound of thundering applause, and every participant is honored in front of the group in a closing ceremony. It’s a time to shine and grow and triumph.
How it’s possible: Space is donated by Concordia University and food is by Original Joe’s and Boomer’s. Several more organizations and companies provide support. The camp is flawlessly executed by an army of volunteers ranging from middle school students to retirees.