The iCan Bike camp teaches people with disabilities to ride a bike

When Kelli Gill was a young girl, she loved riding a children’s bike with training wheels. However, when she outgrew this bike and tried to use a bigger one without training wheels, she struggled.

Before Monday, she hadn’t ridden a bike for 10 years. But on Wednesday, the 17-year-old with Down syndrome was riding an adult bike without training wheels, accelerating in flowing turns around the Easton Area High School parking lot, with a sweaty volunteer to follow.

Kelli’s mother, Doreen, found out about iCan Bike Camp for the Disabled through another relative and was eager to enroll her daughter.

The five-day program, which ends Friday before returning next year, teaches campers how to independently ride a conventional two-wheeled bicycle. Campers participate 75 minutes a day Monday through Friday, and by the end of the week, 80% of them can ride unassisted.

iCan Bike Lehigh Valley is one of many camps across the country run by iCan Shine, a non-profit organization that teaches people with disabilities recreational skills such as biking and dancing. iCan Bike’s Lehigh Valley site was started by the Dietrick family in 2018, after their daughter completed camp at Villanova.

“It’s my favorite week of the year, and the schedule is just amazing,” said John Dietrick. “Statistics for people with Down syndrome and autism indicate that 80% of them never learn to ride a two-wheeler. So it’s a game-changer that with this program almost anyone can learn or make great progress.

Campers start learning in the high school gymnasium, on bikes outfitted with rolling pin-shaped training wheel attachments, Jennifer Dietrick said. As their skills improve, they roll with finer and finer rolling pins, relying more and more on their own balance.

By day three, many campers are ready to ride without the attachment and head out to drive around the parking lot. There, cyclists are paired with a volunteer who runs alongside the bike, ready to stabilize it or catch the camper in the event of a fall.

Most iCan Bike volunteers are high school students. The camp contacts local athletic coaches to advertise the position to students. Volunteer Isabella Guevara, a rising elder from the Easton area, was introduced to the camp by her soccer coach.

“I love working with the campers and seeing them improve,” Guevara said. “The best part is seeing the smiles on their faces when they’re proud of themselves.”

For bike tech Sam Marcucci, who has volunteered and worked for iCan Shine since 2014, watching campers’ progress is “the greatest feeling in the world.”

He rides with each camper during “tandem Tuesday,” in which campers and staff ride two-person bikes together. In addition to maintaining camp bikes, he advises parents on bike purchase and specifications, recommending starter bikes based on their child’s size, age and skill level.

“To see people do something that they initially thought was impossible, and to encourage and support them through it, is really the most amazing thing,” Marcucci said.

In addition to its recreational value, camp has lifelong health benefits for people learning to ride.

“Children with Down syndrome often have weight and health issues, sometimes the ability to exercise, so this is something that will really help [Kelli] maintain a healthy lifestyle,” said Doreen Gill.

Regarding the learning process, Kelli Gill said it was very important to “focus and keep trying”. She is excited to ride independently after the end of camp, she added.

Her dad, Bill Gill, has already bought Kelli his own bike and is looking forward to family bike rides in the future.

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