Seven-year-old Andres Heartz sat on his Strider balance bike Thursday, June 26, and immediately got a smile on his face. With his mother Ana in tow behind him, he took off with the bike, running, laughing and screaming his way around the sanctuary at Palm Coast Praise.
It was the last day of Fun Coast Down Syndrome Association’s balance bike camp.
“When he got on the bike the first night, he stood there and then he just went for it and he laughed so hard,” said Paula Wilburn, executive director and president of Fun Coast Down Syndrome Association. “I looked at Mom, and she said ‘I know, doesn’t it just melt your heart.’ That makes everything worth it. Just for that one little guy to see the joy — because most people take it for granted, riding bikes.”
The week-long bike camp was funded by proceeds raised during the second-annual Up with Down Bike Ride, held March 22. The ride, which drew 53 riders, raised enough money to allow six children with Down syndrome to attend the camp free of charge, and go home with their own Strider bike.
The idea for the camp came four years ago, when her son, Keaton, who is now 14, attended a bike camp for children with Down syndrome. He did well, but upon returning home, they didn’t have the knowledge to keep it going.
“The first time he crashed, he was ready to get his training wheels back on and now he is too big for training wheels,” she said.
When you’re working with someone with a cognitive delay, and telling them they need to balance, pedal, keep their head up and steer all at the same time, Wilburn said that’s just setting them up for failure.
“Most people with Down syndrome end up riding three-wheel bikes — only 10% of people with Down syndrome ever learn to ride a two wheel bike — and I hate to say it, but it’s such a stigma,” Wilburn said. “We don’t want our kids to be seen that way. We want them to be seen as kids or young adults. And I want my son to go bike riding with me and my husband and right now, he can’t because he can’t ride a bike.”
With no pedals the Strider balance bikes allows children to concentrate on the fundamental skills of balancing, leaning, and steering while propelling the bike in a by running or walking.
“Even if they never graduate from a Strider to a pedal, they can use this bike anywhere, anytime,” Wilburn said.
While two-thirds of the funds raised were depleted during the first camp, Wilbrun said there is a second camp planned for August that will focus on the older riders. The next camp will be more expensive, because the bikes are bigger and cost more, so the association is looking for sponsors. The donation of $200 will cover the costs of one rider to attend camp and take their bike home with them.
“People with Down syndrome need a way to exercise because they are prone to weight gain genetically, and the desire that these individuals have to ride a bike, is big,” Wilburn said. “These older guys are stoked!”
For information on the upcoming camp or to donate, contact Wilburn at 447-8034 or [email protected].