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‘I can’ approach sets wheels in motion

Volunteer Rachel Flynn helps Kelly McCowan of Scituate on the bike, while Kelly's mother, Sue, stands ready to lend a hand. Volunteer Rachel Flynn helps Kelly McCowan of Scituate on the bike, while Kelly's mother, Sue, stands ready to lend a hand. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Mary Donius
Globe Correspondent / August 13, 2009

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It wasn’t easy, but Dianne Sullivan was determined to keep her promise to her son. So last week, in a steamy school gymnasium in Scituate, the Woodbury, Minn., resident didn’t whoop it up, scream, or shed a tear when Thomas, 12, rode a two-wheeled bicycle independently for the first time. She held it in, just as he’d asked her to.

Mimi Pugsley of Braintree had made no such deal with her son. She beamed, and her eyes filled with tears that spilled over and rolled down her cheeks as she watched 10-year-old Brian pedal a bike on his own; his gigantic smile matched his mother’s.

“He had been so concerned about succeeding,’’ said Pugsley, relieved that her son had achieved the goal that would allow him to go biking with his three siblings.

Both women had arranged, more than a year ago, for their children to participate in Lose the Training Wheels, a program based in Goddard, Kan., that boasts an 85 percent success rate in teaching young people with disabilities how to ride a bike.

The program made its only stop in Massachusetts in Scituate last week, and Sullivan arranged for her family to spend their vacation with family in Cumberland, R.I., so she could drive Thomas more than an hour each way to participate. Others came from all over Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

“We take a huge ‘I can’t’ and turn it into a huge ‘I can,’ ’’ said Tom Hamilton, executive director of Lose the Training Wheels, who also served as bike mechanic at the Scituate program. “Most parents discover that the success their children find here infuses them with confidence.’’

The program has six “fleets’’ of bicycles and staff that travel the country, mostly during the summer. The Scituate program drew 36 participants between ages 8 and 30.

It was the program’s impressive success rate that spurned Marynell Henry, a Scituate parent and founder of the town’s recreation program for children with special needs, to bring it to Scituate two years ago.

“If kids can ride a bike with their friends and their family, it makes them more independent and gives them a sense of accomplishment,’’ Henry said.

In Scituate, nearly all of the children who participated in the program were on two wheels by the end of the week.

Participants received 75 minutes of instruction on five consecutive days. Gradually, each moved from a modified bike - with a rubber roller instead of a back wheel that mimicked the instability of a bicycle - to a regular two-wheeler. As students progressed, the size of the rollers was reduced. Students then rode tandem bikes with instructors behind them. Finally, they graduated to regular bicycles with large handles that helped instructors guide them if necessary.

The goal is that by the end of the week, each participant can ride his or her own bike outside.

“It’s not magic, but it seems like magic,’’ said Hamilton. “You can’t explain to someone how to ride a bike. They have to experience it themselves.’’

Hamilton said they have tremendous success with children on the autism spectrum, children with Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, and mental retardation.

“Our expectation is that we will have 100 percent success,’’ he said, noting that the children who don’t learn to ride during the five-day program are often unwilling or uninterested in learning. Motivated riders almost always succeed, he says.

Henry said that hosting the program the last two years has been a community effort. More than 60 volunteers were needed to “spot’’ bikers as they rode. It costs about $12,000 to host the program; each child paid $150. The remainder, nearly $7,000, was donated by local businesses and school groups. Many of the teens who volunteered last year returned for this year’s program.

Anna Wankum, 16, who is starting her junior year at Scituate High School in the fall, volunteered both years.

“I like to see the progress from one bike to another, and from the roller to the two-wheeler,’’ she said. “It’s great to get to know the kids during the week and encourage them to ride.’’

As for the Sullivans, Thomas did agree to celebrate his achievement by going out for pizza and ice cream with family. “We had a wonderful celebration,’’ Dianne Sullivan said. “We were all sharing in the joy for him.’’

Mary Donius can be reached at muldon@comcast.net.