Doug Flowers has tried many times to teach his grandson how to ride a bike without success.
But on Wednesday, he was yet another proud family member among the small audience as he watched Kenston, 9, pedal away on a two-week bike independently for the first time.
“It’s amazing. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Flowers said, as his grandson went for a turn around the bus loop at Risley Middle School.
Kenston was 11 months old when he had a stroke, leaving him with physical limitations that make balancing on a bike difficult. But the bicycle he used Wednesday was specifically designed to teach riders with special needs how to use one successfully.
“We’ve been trying his whole life to help get him close but never could get him to ride and keep his balance,” Flowers said.
This week, Social Opportunities & Active Recreation Inc. (SOAR), a local nonprofit that strives to strengthen the quality of life for individuals with developmental disabilities, hosted for the first time in several years the iCan Bike camp, a five-day program for people with disabilities ages 8 and up that teaches campers how to ride a traditional two-wheel bike. The camp is organized through the iCan Shine organization, which sent two staff members along with a fleet of bikes for campers to learn with this week.
Campers rode their bikes around the gymnasium floor at Risley Middle School, and they ventured outside Wednesday to ride two-wheeled bikes around the bus loop.
Each camper has one or two volunteer spotters who stay with them the entire week, walking and running alongside them to keep them balanced and motivated.
“A great bond grows between the two,” said Jane Christian, president of SOAR. “It’s very heartwarming to see.”
Parents and grandparents sat on the gym stage, mostly unseen by the riders, and captured many moments in photos and videos taken on their cellphones.
Twenty campers, ages 8 and older, participated in this year’s program.
Each camper also goes home with a bike adapted to their own size. Griffin’s Bicycle Shop in Brunswick assembled all the bikes and helmets for the campers and offered troubleshooting services throughout the week.
The camp is supported through donations and is free for campers who complete all five days.
The bikes they ride each day are designed to instill confidence in riders through a series of changing rollers attached to the back.
“It’s all about the rollers, so that’s the adapted equipment that we have that they’re riding on right now,” said Alana Turner, a floor supervisor for the iCan Shine Organization. “Our riders come in on a Monday, and they’re super hesitant and nervous.”
The roller they begin with is about the size and circumference of a rolling pin, which creates a stability that will make the riders feel a budding comfort and confidence on their bikes. As they ride, the rollers are switched out and grow progressively more tapered on the ends.
“When it tapers, it creates a little bit of wobble for the rider, so it creates instability,” Turner said. “That instability is really helping the rider create and correct their internal balance systems better than training wheels.”
By mid-week, many are able to try out a two-wheeled bike with a spotting handle on the back.
This teaching technique has an 80% success rate among iCan Bike campers.
Spotters provide valuable encouragement during the camper’s 75-minute daily riding sessions.
“Our volunteers are basically our cheerleaders, instilling that confidence,” Turner said.
She’s worked with the program since volunteering in 2016 and often will see a camper have a “lightbulb” moment when their confidence clicks into place and they’re ready to eventually ride on their own.
“It just finally clicks whenever they believe in themselves,” Turner said.
Randi Marks signed her son up for the camp and volunteered to be a spotter so other riders could take part in the program.
“We’ve been trying to teach (our son) to ride a bike since he was little,” she said. “We tried training wheels. At Christmas we got him a trike bike, the three-wheeled bike. I just wanted to give him the opportunity to ride a regular two-wheel bike.”
Most parents and grandparents of riders come every day to watch their camper’s progress on the bikes. David Wicker, a firefighter for the Glynn County Fire Department, used one of his vacation days to make sure he could be there with his son Wednesday.
His son John is 17 and has autism, and Wicker said he’s worked with him on his bike riding skills in the past, but the iCan Bike Camp offered the best opportunity to learn.
“It’s very likely that he won’t be able to get a driver’s license, so this may be his only mode of independent transportation,” he said.
Flowers said he’s appreciative of the iCan Bike Camp hosts for all they’ve done for his grandson.
“He loves it,” he said. “He’s very excited.”