Forty campers with disabilities learned to ride two-wheelers at the 2019 iCan Bike camp in West Hartford.
By Ronni Newton
Learning to ride a two-wheeler is a major milestone for children, a skill that gives them a great deal of independence, but some have physical or mental disabilities that make achieving that skill a bit more challenging.
Thanks to the iCan Bike program (formerly known as Lose the Training Wheels) – held in West Hartford since 2005 – hundreds of children have learned to cruise independently on two wheels.
The week-long program, which the national iCan Shine organization holds at sites throughout the country, teaches individuals with disabilities, ages 8 and up, to ride a two-wheeled bicycle. The Miracle League of Connecticut took over the West Hartford program five years ago, and has continued to hold the camp annually in the Conard High School gym and parking lot.
Adapted bicycles, combined with scores of dedicated volunteers who learn how to encourage the riders while providing proper spotting, lead to a high level of success. About 80 percent of the campers typically graduate as completely independent riders. They start off inside the gym, and move to the parking lot once they gain confidence.
Friday, July 26 was “graduation day,” the last day of the week-long camp, and while a few kids needed help getting started pedaling, most of the campers were cruising independently around a large cordoned-off area of the Conard parking lot.
West Hartford residents Tom Proeitti – who formerly organized the program when it was run by the Kiwanis Club – and his 19-year-old daughter, Lena – a UConn sophomore who has been helping out at the camp since long before she was old enough to officially volunteer – were serving as a fan club for 8 1/2-year-old Evan Pitcher-Draghi of Burlington.
Evan’s dad, Luke Pitcher-Draghi, watched from the shade at the edge of the parking lot, a big smile on his face. Luke, who teaches sixth-grade math at Sedgwick Middle School in West Hartford, said that a few years ago Evan had some physical therapy and had learned to ride a big plastic trike, and then at Walmart got on a bike with training wheels and started riding around the store.
He bought the bike, but Evan soon lost interest. By the time he wanted to try again, that bike was way too small.
Evan now has a new, larger bike, that Luke said he purchased at Bloomfield Bike, which sponsors the iCan Bike program.
“He’s pretty independent,” Luke said of Evan’s ability to stay upright and pedal, but what Evan really needed to learn was “the whole stopping, holding up for others, putting those components together.”
At one point Evan tipped over, and then stood up and dusted off his knee, but the Proeittis made sure that neither scared him nor deterred him from getting back on the saddle. “You’ve now passed all the tests, buddy,” Tom Proietti said with a smile, telling Evan that part of learning to ride a bike was falling off at least once.
Both Proiettis followed Evan around the blacktop a few more times as he confidently rode in large circles.
“This was the final piece. He’s put it all together,” Luke said.
“We had another full camp, and the majority of kids are riding by themselves. Everybody is at least on two wheels,” said Mike Michaud, executive director of the Miracle League of Connecticut.
This year there were 40 campers, ages 8-23 (it’s intended for ages 8-18, but occasionally older campers are admitted), in five sessions. More than 60 volunteers helped out during the course of the week. In addition, the West Hartford Fire Department sent a squad – and a piece of equipment for the kids to explore – from a different station each day. West Hartford Police Off. Pete Kisella from the Community Relations Division also assisted, Michaud said.
“It was very successful,” said Michaud, adding that he is very thankful for the generous grants that the camp received this year from Hartford Pilgrim Healthcare and the Tapper Charitable Foundation.
The Miracle League of Connecticut offers year-round recreational, educational and cultural opportunities for Connecticut’s children with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities in addition to the iCan Bike program. For more information visit www.miracleleaguect.org.
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