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February 22, 2018
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Cycling without limits

  • Mark Szentirmay of Rohnert Park shows the joy of participating in the United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay annual bike camp held at Sonoma State. Robert Grant

By: Stephanie Derammelaere
January 19, 2018

On the weekend of Jan. 12 to 15, children zoomed around the Sonoma State University gymnasium, some on specially altered bikes, some on tandems, but all with big smiles on their faces. The 14 special needs children from all over the Bay Area got the chance to learn how to ride a conventional two-wheeled bicycle at a winter bike camp called “Cycle Without Limits”. The event, now in its 18th year, is sponsored through a collaboration between Sonoma State University and United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay.

“It’s a camp that assists children with special needs who have had trouble learning to ride a standard two-wheel bike,” said Elaine McHugh, a retired Sonoma State University professor in the Kinesiology department who started the program 18 years ago. “We have specialized trainer bikes that were designed by a staff person at United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay. The kids practice on these trainer bikes and then they transition to a two-wheel bike. We have a pretty good success rate. Then the kids are able to go out and participate with their peers just like any other kid.”

The specially designed bikes, designed and built by Dennis Blong, use air cylinders to gently cushion the rider and keep them safely upright while allowing for a progressively greater lean. This gives the children stability and boosts their confidence. As their skills develop, air pressure in the cylinders can be gradually reduced until the rider is riding on their own. 

“He was very excited!” said Gyula Szentirmay from Cotati about his seven-year-old son, Mark, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after suffering from a stroke as a baby. “It was hard for him to keep balance, and steer and pedal, so we think this will help a lot.”

Besides children with cerebral palsy, the camp also caters to children with other disabilities, including those with Autism, sensory motor needs, learning disabilities, and Down Syndrome. The children range in age from 6 to 17-years-old.

“What’s really great about it is that kids with disabilities have special accommodations in so many aspects of their lives – in school and after school,” said McHugh. “So many physical activities as well as academic activities often need a lot of accommodations. A lot of times students with special needs also have difficulty making social connections with other kids. So, this is a situation where if they learn to ride a two-wheel bike they are exactly on an equal par with their peers. They can do the activity exactly like their peers do it and then they can participate as a fully equal partner.” 

Six-year-old Louka from Santa Rosa, who had previous experience riding a tag-along bike attached to his parents’ bike, has a sensory processing disorder that makes riding on his own difficult. But when asked what he liked best about the day, he could confidently reply, “I like riding best by myself!”

“We chose to put him in this program because of the special bikes that will help him learn,” said Louka’s mother Annette Romios. 

“And also because of the staff,” said his father William Harnage. “They know when and what the kids are ready for. We love this program because it’s great to find activities we can do together as a family that are healthy and don’t involve commuting in a car.”

McHugh first started this program as part of the training for college students to work with children with special needs. In this particular camp, nine Sonoma State students participated who all want to be occupational therapists, physical therapists or other exercise specialists. This experience gives them more hands-on experience with special needs children while allowing them to also give their skills and expertise to the children.  

“The children look up to them,” said McHugh. “They just love being with the college kids.”

UCP also provides experienced staff to supervise and provide modeling for the volunteers. To this end, each rider has at least one, and sometimes two, camp counselors who are at their side while on the bike.  

Shelby Mizner, a Santa Rosa Junior College student who has helped with the program for four years also works at a pediatric occupational therapist’s office. 

“Working with kids with disabilities is something I love to do,” said Mizner. “I love to watch the progress the kids make – going from barely riding a bike with training wheels to riding a two-wheeler by themselves. I also like seeing the parents so proud and happy.”

“This is just a great collaboration between the university, training future professionals through the university, the non-profit organization and the community,” said McHugh. “Our ultimate goal is to benefit the children with special needs in the community and make it so they can be more integrated into community life.”

SSU and United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay will hold their second cycling camp of the year on June 11-15. They host a swim and outdoor play camp in the summer as well. Interested participants can contact Elaine at elaine.mchugh@sonoma.edu to get more information, or can register at www.uspnb.org.