Friday, June 16 was the final day of the weeklong UCP (United Cerebral Palsy) of the North Bay Bike and Swim Camp held at SSU. The main gym on the SSU campus was filled with bicycles of all sizes, and parents with smiles that stretched from ear to ear. While this sounds like a run of the mill summer camp; it’s anything but. All the children – and teenagers – taking part in it have cerebral palsy, and this weeklong day camp was about more than learning new skills, it was about breaking down feelings of being ‘different’ or ‘other’.
Dr. Elaine McHugh was the Adapted Physical Education Coordinator in the Department of Kinesiology at Sonoma State University, and she developed the Bike Camp over 13 years ago. Though she’s now retired from SSU, she still directs the camp and was present on Friday, encouraging kids, helping parents, and answering questions. When asked what she thought the biggest takeaway from the camp was for the kids, her answer was immediate, “It’s the realization that they’re not so different. Growing up, kids with cerebral palsy need adaptation devices and especially when they start something new like riding a bike or swimming.
This is when they start to see themselves as ‘different’ – set apart in their abilities from their peers. This is where gaining the skill and the confidence to ride a bicycle levels the playing field.” McHugh spoke further about how this makes a difference for both the kids and parents, “What really feeds my soul about this camp is seeing the parents, often with tears in their eyes, as they see their child riding the bike on their own, feeling the same as everyone else because they’re doing what everyone else is doing, and successfully.”
Watching the activity on the floor, now that the last day of camp has arrived, a casual observer wouldn’t think that these kids had overcome any obstacles. One young boy, Gael Ascani, 6, was particularly energetic, zipping around the cones as though he was a long-time professional. When asked if he’d like to stop for a photo with his dad, he didn’t miss a beat, “Not now,” he said, pedaling by, “I want to finish the S, and I’m not done yet…”
His father, German Ascani, was one of those smiling parents on the sidelines, bouncing Gael’s baby sister in his arms as he watched, “You know,” he remarked, “it had been a struggle. Gael has problems with his balance and sensory overload, but he didn’t want to depend on a trike or tag-along. We were referred to this camp, and Dr. McHugh got back to us right away, with information and even referrals from other parents whose children had been to this camp. It’s amazing. Today, Gael looked at me and said, ‘Look! We can ride as a family now!’ This is just great – seeing his development and how his confidence has grown. He’s confident that he can do it, and that has made all the difference.”
Soon after his dad said this, Gael took a minor spill and knocked over one of the orange cones that marked the course. Looking completely unfazed, he got up, righted the cone, jumped back on the bike and zoomed off. If anyone wanted to ask if the camp had been worth it, the smile on Mr. Ascani’s face said it all.
If you’re interested in the many summer camps United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay is offering, take a look at their website at ucpnb.org, or call (707) 763-9807.