As Liesl Kjoller pedals around the Page Youth Center gymnasium, cheers and shouts and the slap of high fives ring out. Liesl’s smile grows wider with every lap. This is the 15-year-old’s third year participating in a unique, weeklong camp. iCan Bike offers people with disabilities the support, equipment, and encouragement needed to learn to bicycle independently.
iCan Shine is a national nonprofit organization that coordinates with local agencies and individuals to bring biking programs annually to nearly 3,000 people with disabilities. The five-day-long bike camps extend across 32 states and three Canadian provinces. The camps boast a tremendous success rate, with about 80 percent of participants riding two-wheelers by the end of the week. The key to this high success rate is the special equipment used and the support offered to riders.
Jeff Sullivan, director of finance and administration at iCan, said, “The adapted bikes that are used are effectively typical two-wheel bikes, but the back wheel is replaced with a roller system invented by Dr. Richard Klein.” The system uses eight different rollers that range in stability so riders can gradually gain a sense of balance and confidence. Sullivan went on, “The participants proceed through the rollers during camp at their individual paces and are monitored by our staff, who make the call as to when to switch to the next more challenging roller for each rider.”
There’s another, less quantifiable but easily visible measure of success: the joy of participants. By Thursday afternoon, Liesl has ridden hundreds of laps around the gym, but she’s still enthusiastic and excited. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone happier to be on a bike. Her mother, Marcie Kjoller said, “Liesl uses a iPod and iPad with a special voice output app to communicate. All week long, as soon as she wakes up in the morning, she asks for bike camp. By the time her 2:30 session begins, she has asked for it over a hundred times … That and her smile are how I know how much she loves it!”
Liesl loves to ride, and Marcie loves the life skills her daughter is learning through biking: “It really reinforces that hard work, determination, focus, and practice can lead to great accomplishments. This camp gives her the opportunity to experience that in a week. Most of the skills Liesl has acquired have taken years and years to achieve.”
While Liesl rides laps around the gym, her older sister Alanna is busy outside, chasing 9-year-old Lily Nixon through the parking lot. Lily rides her pink two-wheeler through the closed-off parking lot while Alanna sprints alongside, acting as a spotter. Nineteen-year-old Alanna is home from Northeastern University for the summer and working as a volunteer at camp for the first time. She says, “I saw the change it made in my sister’s life and wanted to help be a part of that change for others.” The main challenge of camp, Alanna said, was “keeping up with Lily as she got stronger and faster over the course of the week.” When Lily finishes her final lap around the parking lot she throws both arms over her head triumphantly, and it’s clear Alanna has made an impact.
Back inside, 11-year-old Sydney Long describes the magic of bike camp. “When they discover they can ride a bike for the first time, that’s the most exciting part. It’s amazing. People who never would have had a chance to ride a bike, they learn it way faster than I even did.” The sixth grader is an unofficial volunteer at camp, helping out wherever she’s needed. When her younger brother requires a little encouragement, she races him around the gym yelling, “Good job, Channing! You’re beating me!”
Their mother, Liz Long, says the camp has pushed 7-year-old Channing to a new level, “He was really scared to ride. These bikes, plus the spotters, really help. He rode for an hour straight the other day, which has never, ever happened before.” Channing doesn’t just want to ride; he craves speed. Says Liz, “He likes to go fast but is still working on being able to do that himself; so when he is on the tandem bike and someone is helping him go fast, he loves it!” He also loves the music blaring over the speakers in the gym, riding a little quicker when his favorite songs come on and taking a break to dance to Michael Jackson before getting back on the bike.
While it’s great exercise and great fun, for some participants the camp is also an important step toward a more independent future. First-year volunteer Debra Weaver said, “Learning to ride a bike is really important because it could be their only mode of transportation as these kids get older. Some of them may never drive a car.”
Claudia Watters has been volunteering with Santa Barbara’s special needs population for over a decade. She believes every camper has benefited from participating, “When they are successful, and they all, every one of them, were successful at many different levels, I feel like I have helped to make a life better.”
The camp requires over 40 volunteers each day to run smoothly. If you would like more information about participating, as a rider or as a volunteer, please contact Retta Slay at (805) 681-9165.