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Bike camp instills confidence in kids with special needs

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Will Dirrim, Will Dostal

iCan Bike graduate Will Dirrim goes for a spin outside Pius X High School on Friday, trailed by camp volunteer Will Dostal.

Dara Dirrim was moved to tears the first time she watched her son ride a bike on his own.

Will Dirrim is a 15-year-old Lincoln Southeast High School student, and, as of Friday, a successful cyclist.

Will has special needs. And before a five-day camp put on by iCan Shine, an organization that travels across the country to put on bike camps for kids like him, getting on a two-wheeler seemed to be out of the question.

“He got on a bike with training wheels and had issues with balance and control,” his mom said. “The tipping and falling made him stop wanting to get on all together. His sister tried, we tried, other people tried. He just gave it up.”

She was thinking about buying Will a three-wheeled bike, but options were expensive.

“And then this came along.”

On Friday, Will stood next to his mom, wearing a Huskers jersey and a flame-covered helmet, a grin plastered on his face.

This was the first year the iCan Bike Camp came to Lincoln. Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital funded the camp that ran Monday through Friday at Pius X High School.

Twenty-one kids, ages 8 to 18, showed up every day for 75 minutes of training. Some came with their families from Grand Island and as far as Iowa and Kansas.

Research shows that more than 80 percent of people with autism and 90 percent of people with Down syndrome never experience the thrill of riding a bike independently, according to the iCan Shine website.

Camp coordinator Cindy Ryman Yost said gaining that sense of independence does wonders for campers’ attitudes.  

“The self-confidence is amazing,” she said. “The independence, the freedom. It’s being able to go out and ride your bike with your friends to go get ice cream or go to the pool. It’s been incredible for the kids.”

And it's sentimental for the parents and grandparents watching, she said.

“Some of them were really nervous. They don’t know if it’s safe, or they’re worried about how their kids are going to do,” Ryman Yost said. “But then to see their kids with that freedom of going on their own -- it’s been fairly overwhelming and powerful.

"We had a lot of parents say, ‘I didn’t think I would ever see this happen.’ There were definitely some tears.”

The camp wouldn't have happened without volunteers, she said.

Each camper had at least two spotters, and volunteers ranged from former teachers to grandparents, a spinning instructor, priest, firefighter, Pius X baseball players, students and foreign exchange students.

Campers started off on bikes with large cylinder-shaped rollers in place of back wheels. The cylinders vary in size based on experience -- the smaller the roller, the closer the camper was to switching to a wheel.

On Monday, volunteers surrounded each cyclist as he or she circled the gym -- holding onto handles attached to the back of the bikes. By Wednesday, campers were outside making laps on two-wheelers with little or no assistance.

Will Dostal, a senior at Pius X and one of four baseball players who volunteered -- even with area tournament games to play later in the day -- made a perfect teammate for Will Dirrim, his mom said.

Dostal said he learned from the experience, too.

“I can make a difference and do more than I thought I could,” he said. “And you really got to know the kids well. It’s something I won’t forget.”

Nor will the campers.

One by one, the kids “graduated” from the bike camp Friday. Volunteers lined up, clasping hands to form a tunnel for them to run through. Awards like “MVP Bryan” and “Superstar Will” were announced as people gathered in the gym cheered.

“It’s unbelievable,” Dara Dirrim said. “The people who run iCan Bike are amazing, patient and kind -- everything you want in someone who is going to work with a kid with special needs.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or lesparrago@journalstar.com

On Twitter @linds_esparrago

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