Tammy Burt, a professor at Ball State University who conducts summer camps to teach bike-riding skills to children with disabilities, said the local camp held last week provided the most volunteers out of all the camps she has run.
"It's awesome! It's so great to see you all here," she said to the full house at the orientation held on Sunday, June 13. "I'm just really impressed by the outpouring of community support. It's what makes this program a success."
For the fourth year in a row, the Lincoln-Way Area Special Education District 843 has sponsored a weeklong camp with the help of the national organization Lose the Training Wheels. Thirty-five campers and more than 100 volunteers spent June 13-17 in the Spencer Campus gym in New Lenox working with specially engineered bicycles.
Burt explained to the volunteers how the bikes work. Designed by Richard Klein, a former engineering professor at University of Illinois, the bikes feature a tapered roller for a back wheel, which provides stability but simulates the wobbles of a traditional bike as the roller ends grow more tapered. A long handle off the back of the bike allows volunteers to assist as needed with starting and stopping and turns until the rider has mastered those skills.
Campers move from the roller bike with a handle to a regular bike with a handle and hopefully, finally, to their own bike from home. Volunteers work in teams to spot the riders as they circle the gym during the 75-minute session.
Burt and her camp mechanic, Cory Bunner, continually observe the campers' progress and adjust the bikes as needed, swapping out the rollers or switching campers to the regular bikes with handles. Bunner also took students for rides on a specially engineered tandem bike which allowed him to gauge their riding ability before transitioning them to a standard two-wheel bike.
"I didn't think it would be so scientific with them writing things down and changing the rollers," said parent Tim Wassink, of Frankfort. "A lot of thought went into this ... teaching these kids to ride this way."
Burt uses the process to its fullest, making sure that students are challenged but not frustrated. Riders are considered "launched" when they take that first ride without training wheels and without the spotter guiding the handle.
Parent Tim Murphy of Western Springs was excited to see his daughter continue to build her confidence.
"Hope is almost 13 and too big for training wheels," Murphy said. "But one of her goals is to ride her bike with all her cousins in Michigan this summer. It's good motivation."
And Hope met her goal. By Thursday, she had fully launched and was riding independently outside, grinning the whole way, as was Wassink's son Ryan.
"I've been up since 12 a.m. and working since 2 a.m. I am absolutely wiped out, but this is awesome," said Wassink, who was running back and forth in the parking lot, spotting his son who was pedaling confidently and quickly.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything!" he shared.
The volunteers feel the same way about watching their camper's confidence level increase.
"I was so proud of Stevie today," said Allison Geary, a senior at Lincoln-Way East High School. "Yesterday we had to turn the wheel for him. Today he's doing it all on his own."
Parent Gina Barrett is also a District 843 staff member and a camp volunteer, so she experienced the best of both worlds.
"It was so awesome (to see her son riding on his own)m" she said. "The confidence—the look on his face was priceless. He goes home so happy from here."