Program that teaches people with disabilities bike riding comes to East Lyme

East Lyme — When Laurie LaTerza's daughter, Sofia, got up on a bicycle by herself last summer, the sense of accomplishment and independence she felt was huge, her mother said.

"She was all smiles," said LaTerza, a Guilford resident. "She was screaming: 'I'm doing it! Mommy, look at me!'"

Sofia, now 11, was participating in the iCan Bike program in West Hartford, a five-day program that trains individuals with special needs how to ride a bike.

Prior to the program, Sofia, who has autism, rode on a tricycle or on a bicycle with training wheels. During the program, Sofia began by using an adaptive bicycle and gradually developed her muscle memory and confidence, so she can now ride her own bike on trails with her family.

"She can talk about it now with friends, she can show them pictures, and ideally it will give her the independence to ride with other peers," LaTerza added.

Sofia will participate in the program again this summer to gain more skills in learning how to stop and start her bicycle, but she will do so in southeastern Connecticut. The program, also offered in Milford, will be coming to East Lyme for the first time this summer.

The one-week program, a partnership among the nonprofit iCan Shine, Inc., the East Lyme Parks and Recreation Department and The Miracle League of Connecticut, is designed to teach individuals with disabilities how to ride a bicycle, according to a program description. The program will run from Aug. 7 to 11 at East Lyme Middle School gym. Each participant will attend a 75-minute session every day.

Participants start off riding an adapted bicycle provided by the program. The bicycles are typical two-wheel bikes, but the back wheel has been replaced with an adaptive roller system that resembles a rolling pin, said Mike Michaud, executive director of the Miracle League of CT. Through the week, the rollers are replaced with slightly more tapered ones — without the participants knowing — so they gradually develop a sense of balance while riding.

Participants typically begin by mid-week to transition to their own two-wheel bicycle and are typically riding outside by the end of the week.

"It's just an incredible sense of accomplishment for any kid when they learn to ride a bike," Michaud said. "It's a milestone in their life. It's one the parents always remember."

He said that children who completed the program have been able to ride with their siblings or friends in their neighborhood, or join their family on a cross-country trip.

Through the week, participants build confidence, and most can ride independently by the end of the week, said Jim Capodiece, a volunteer coordinator for the East Lyme program. Regardless, all will have made progress.

The program cites that more than 85 percent of participants become independent bike riders.

"It's a great program and really provides opportunities for parents, children and volunteers to come together," said Capodiece.  

LaTerza said the program's staff and volunteers encourage the children, allow them to go at their own pace, and celebrate them for the progress they make.

"It doesn't have to be at 100 percent," she said. "The fact that they were there and trying something new ... that sense of accomplishment was given to every child."

The program is seeking volunteer spotters, who run along with the child, who are at least 16 years old. Fifteen-year-olds can volunteer as assistant spotters.

East Lyme Parks and Recreation Director David Putnam said the volunteers will have a feeling of accomplishment because they're helping out kids.

Capodiece, a retired director of human and leisure services in West Hartford who serves on Miracle League's state advisory board, suggested the idea of East Lyme hosting the program when the Miracle League was looking to expand the program to southeastern Connecticut. He said East Lyme Parks and Recreation Department and Putnam enthusiastically embraced the idea.

Putnam said the hope is for iCan Bike to be an annual program in East Lyme.

"I see this being a long-term commitment on our part to continue this program," he said.

More information and registration is available at www.miracleleaguect.org/bikeELreg. The program fee is $150. The Miracle League of CT says financial aid is available to families in need.

k.drelich@theday.com

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