SCHENECTADY – Children with disabilities spent this week learning how to ride a bike in the STRIDE Adaptive Sports “I Can Ride” bike camp – which this year is celebrating its 17th year teaching at Union College. This time though, only 27 children participated, mostly because the camp does not have enough volunteers.
For a full week, the children, all under 21, complete a 75-minute session each day using bicycles specially engineered to make sure riders are safe. Each day, two volunteers are assigned to run alongside a student rider, on a bike supplied by iCanShine. The volunteers encourage the riders and stand by to prevent falls. The student cyclists first ride inside on the Messa Rink and then riders can advance to outdoor cycling on the running track.
“When you have a good support system, like STRIDE and the volunteers who stay patient, my boys can definitely sense that type of attitude and are more willing and engaged in the activity,” said Natalie Raymond, the mother of two riders this year from South Glen Falls. Raymond, like many of the parents, donated her own time to the program because of the volunteer shortage.
By the time the program ends on Friday, the non-profit organization estimates, between 80 and 90% of the participants will have learned how to ride a two-wheeler. STRIDE offers a variety of programs, including swimming, dancing and skiing. The bike program is one of the most popular.
STRIDE offers 18 athletic programs at 20 locations in the Northeast and employs only four full-time staffers. Volunteer applications are way down and the program directors had to cut 13 children from the bike camp this year.
One volunteer from Averill Park High School had clocked some 23 miles on her fitness watch Wednesday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. while she was running alongside her charges.
“My next session is only me running with the kid because honestly we have a shortage of staff,” said Talor Short, a rising senior and cross country runner at Averill Park High School, who has volunteered with the camp for five years. “It sucks because every kid wants to learn to ride a bike,” she said.
The results speak for themselves.
“Seeing a kid ride a bike for the first time is amazing,” said Christine Golden, development director for STRIDE. “Seeing the confidence the children have, all the parents are beyond thrilled.”
The camp “always has a waiting list,” said Camille Pawlowski, program director. “Next year we are hoping enough volunteers step up so we can offer the program to 40 children. The program is always inspiring.”
Amanda Larkin, a special education teacher at Mohonasen Central School District, also works for the bike supplier iCanShine and travels nationwide to bring programs to children. When she sees a child learn how to ride a bike, she knows that sense of accomplishment they are feeling is a big one, she said. “It is amazing and so fun, it never feels like a job.”
On site Thursday was one STRIDE participant who is also an instructor.
“Everyone is so welcoming and they didn’t care what my abilities were,” said Marleah Lybolt on Thursday. “They didn’t care if I had a diagnosis. They saw I could help and welcomed me immediately. I felt very unjudged and in my everyday life, I always felt like people were judging me. It was nice to be at a place where I felt completely safe.”