Innovative program teaches youngsters with special needs how to ride a bike


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Zach Spanos rode his specially designed bike three-quarters of the way around the indoor track, then stopped. With a big smile, he flashed the thumbs-up sign to his mother, who watched from the balcony.

The 8-year-old from Mt. Lebanon is one of 40 children with special needs from the Pittsburgh region who are taking part this week in Lose the Training Wheels, a national program that uses innovative techniques to teach bike riding.

"These kids are able to ride a two-wheel bike -- they just don't know it yet," said Sharon Gretz of Indiana Township, a coordinator for the Special Kids Network of Pennsylvania. Her job is to support new programs for youth who have conditions such as autism and Down syndrome.

She helped a group of parents organized by Zach's mom, Timme Spanos, make this event happen, along with the Children's Institute, which is the sponsoring organization for the Amazing Bike Camp under way in the Iceoplex at Southpointe in Cecil.

"It's a rite of passage for young people to be able to do this," Mrs. Gretz said. "By being able to ride a regular two-wheel bicycle that looks just like their neighbor's bike, it helps them become more integrated and involved in the community with their peers."

Campers paid $175 to attend the camp. Some scholarships were available for children in need. Eighty percent of kids who participate nationwide are able to ride a bike independently by week's end. In some camps, every student will be riding by the end of the five-day program.

The children are taught on a bike equipped with special tires on the back and a handle that volunteers use to help steady the rider. The wheels are solid rubber and shaped to keep the bike upright, although they allow it to rock back and forth.

Gradually, as the rider progresses and gets a feel for balancing, the wheels are replaced with progressively thinner tires. By the time the thinnest set of wheels is installed, most riders are on their way.

The teaching style of Lose the Training Wheels is what attracted Amy Guthrie of Squirrel Hill to the program. Her son Ben, 10, took off on the bike right away.

"Hopefully, he'll continue to have that confidence," she said. "It's a really interesting process because it's so intuitive. Instead of teaching, the student discovers the balance."

Her family has struggled to get Ben to ride without training wheels. She smiled as her competitive son actually was racing another boy around the track. "I like going fast," he said with a grin.

Sharon Colantonio held a clipboard, evaluating each of the riders to determine their progress. During the school year, she teaches at the School for the Blind in St. Louis, where she lives. For the past three summers, she has worked for Lose the Training Wheels as floor supervisor for the 75-minute sessions.

"When they make that transition to two wheels, their world explodes," she said. "They have opportunities to work with and be part of a peer group they have for so long been excluded from. It gives the family an opportunity to do something together."

Standing next to her is Heidi Curtis, 21, of Chicago. She's the mechanic and technician for the bikes, making sure everything keeps rolling. Ms. Curtis is an eight-year veteran of the program.

"You get them on those two wheels and it amazes you. You'll see this huge change, and just seeing the smiles, that's what I get out of it."

Her favorite success story is about a boy who learned to ride during the week. The next day, his parents couldn't find him in the house, then he walked through the front door with breakfast for everyone from McDonald's.

"His parents ended up locking up the bike at night," she said, laughing.

Some riders slowly worked their way around the track, getting a feel for the new bike, but others gave their volunteers a workout.

Cooper Quigley, 7, who lives in Chicago but will move to Peters next month, was very comfortable on his bike. "Because it kind of reminds me of races, like Speed Racer," he said.

The volunteer paired with Cooper, Laura Bradley of Canonsburg, ran for the entire session, her face flushed after the workout. "Looks like I'm going to get in shape," Ms. Bradley, a special education major at California University, said with a laugh.

Cooper's mother, Laura, held back tears as she watched her son race around the course. "It was emotional. It was nice to see him having so much fun, doing really well and having some optimism that he's going to get this and have success."

Mrs. Spanos, who founded the parents group that brought Lose the Training Wheels to southwestern Pennsylvania, was overjoyed to see her son do so well riding around the track. "It was wonderful," she said.

Her son has a type of autism and is nonverbal, but words weren't needed as Zach smiled and pointed during the riding session.

It's been a struggle to get Zach to take off his training wheels at home, and Mrs. Spanos believes learning to ride a bike on his own is an important step for him.

"It's not something you just learn today," she said. "It's something he can carry on for the rest of his life. Not only is it exercise, it's transportation, it's the social element. He's able to ride with the typical peers in his neighborhood."

John Liebrock of McCandless was on the balcony, watching his son, Stephen, 14, ride a bike longer that he ever had.

"We've tried to get him to ride a bike with his brother and sister, and he just won't do it," he said.

Stephen is very athletic, participating in skiing, basketball, baseball, soccer and swimming.

"You name it and he does it, except for riding a bike," Mr. Liebrock said.

He watched as Stephen rode for more than an hour, after normally staying on a bike for only two minutes.

"It was wonderful ... he was having a good time, speeding right along," he said.

Stephen concurred: "I like it. I like going fast."

Katelyn Schultz, 15, of Crafton, has had a lot of trouble learning to ride a bike, according to her mother, Jeanine, who helped bring Lose the Training Wheels to The Iceoplex.

Katelyn is the only one in the family who can't ride a bike, so she rides along on a tandem with her dad.

"We've tried nonstop [to teach her]," Mrs. Schultz said. "Every time the ground becomes uneven, she becomes very frightened. We've always had an issue with balance."

But Katelyn did fine on the specially designed bike, and her mother was thrilled. "It was very exciting," she said.

Her mother asked, "Do you think you'll be riding a two-wheel bike by Friday?" Katelyn smiled and nodded.

Today, every participant will receive a new Trek bike courtesy of GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare. The bikes were handpicked to custom fit each child.

Mrs. Gretz wants to make this an annual event, but she needs other parents to form a planning committee that will be mentored by this year's parents.

She wants every child who comes through the camp to go home with something more than the ability to ride a bike.

"If they feel, 'I'm good, I can do things' ... If they can come out with that, wow, we have given them a real gift."

For more information about the camp or how to help for next year's event, call Jane Keim at the Children's Institute at 412-420-2209.


Doug Oster can be reached at doster@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9177.


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