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'Truly happy to be able to be free': Children with disabilities learn to ride bikes at Harford County summer camp

'Truly happy to be able to be free': Children with disabilities learn to ride bikes at Harford County summer camp
Josh Lemly, a manager at the Churchville Recreation Center, jogs alongside Alaina Alexander as she learns to ride a bicycle with a special rolling pin back wheel during Harford County's Bike Camp Friday. (Christine Condon / The Baltimore Sun)

Valerie Alexander’s young daughter Alaina has always wanted to ride a bike.

Alaina, who has special needs, used to watch from the door as her little sister rode along with training wheels.

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“Honestly, I didn’t know how to teach her,” Valerie Alexander said.

But now, Alaina is learning.

She was one of more than 30 children with disabilities who climbed onto bicycles last week as part of Harford County’s Bike Camp at the Churchville Recreation Center, which was being held for the third year.

They learned to ride with the help of iCan Bike, which brings along bikes affixed with special rolling pins on the back rather than training wheels. The rollers, which taper off on either end, help kids learn to balance, rather than relying on the stability of training wheels, said Eric Marr of iCan Bike.

iCan Bike travels around the country offering biking camps with the unique bikes, and some tandem bikes too. Kids sit in the front to get the feel of biking, and volunteers use it as a reward for the children, too, Marr said.

Each child works one-on-one with a volunteer throughout the week. The camp has four 75-minute sessions, which include eight children, every day, said Rachel Harbin, manager of the county’s office of disability services.

“We heard from parents that riding a bike is such a thing that you take for granted, and so many kids don’t get to ride with their neighborhood friends or with their family,” Harbin said.

iCan Bike brought along a trailer full of bikes like this one, with a unique rolling-pin back wheel and a handlebar attached.
iCan Bike brought along a trailer full of bikes like this one, with a unique rolling-pin back wheel and a handlebar attached. (Christine Condon / The Baltimore Sun)

Kim Taddeo is looking forward to taking her 20-year-old son Bingham to ride on trails near her home in Bel Air. Volunteers will attach a special handlebar to the back of his bike so that she can support the bike while he rides, she said.

Bingham hadn’t tried to ride a bike in roughly five years, his mom said, so she didn’t quite know what to expect.

“When he first started to get it, you could see his little smirk, like truly happy to be able to be free,” Taddeo said. “You could really see it. He just was so happy.”

County Councilman Chad Shrodes volunteered to help Bingham learn on a rolling-pin-affixed bike in the rec center’s gymnasium earlier in the week.

So when he drove into the parking lot Friday morning and saw him riding outside, with a volunteer jogging beside him, he was moved.

“It was a special moment to see that, definitely,” he said. “I can’t get over it.”

Harbin said she frequently hears from parents after the camp about how happy they are to see their children on two wheels.

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“We get letters and phone calls all the time just saying how they never thought their kid could ride a bike, and on Monday they still don't think [so], and on Friday they’re riding by themselves outside.” Harbin said.

Robbie Stewart, a 16-year-old Calvert Hall student, volunteered at the camp throughout the week. Stewart, an avid biker himself, called the experience rewarding.

“Some of them couldn’t ride a bike to begin with and now some of them are flying around the streets outside, so it’s really great to see that,” he said.

The camp has been helpful to parents too, in more ways than you’d think, said Karen Hardiman, who recently moved to the Forest Hill area with her family from Perry Hall.

She and her 13-year-old son Stuart have done Discovery Basketball and Baseball before, she said. But during those events, she was rarely able to speak with the other parents, since they all had to take part in the game. At this week’s camp, she had time to chat with them while a volunteer helped her son.

“Parents with typical kids, you have to explain a lot, and even so you don't know if they fully get it,” Hardiman said. “But you don’t have to say anything to another parent with special needs kids.”

When it came time to take a group picture, sporting Olympic-style medals, Stuart flung his arms into the air, smiling from ear to ear.

And when his mother asked him where he wants to ride his bike, sitting on the bleachers afterwards, his answer was simple.

“McDonald’s!” he said with a grin.

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