One of the greatest dreams of a disabled child is to be able to do what all the other children are doing — including riding a bike.
Pittsburgh charity Variety is expanding its “My Bike” program into McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter counties, bringing Rifton adaptive bikes to eligible children with disabilities.
Charlie LaVallee, chief executive officer of Variety, told The Era Tuesday that the group is looking for some needy children.
“I don’t think word has gotten out yet,” he said, explaining Variety expanded the program’s reach about a month ago. “Basically one out of five of our families hear from media or word of mouth.”
The “My Bike” program provides Rifton adaptive bikes free of charge to qualifying applicants. The bikes are individually customized for eligible children with disabilities “to give them the joy, freedom and belonging that’s created through a bike,” reads a press release from the company.
“A lot of families don’t know the program is out there,” Lavallee said. “For a lot of its history, it was focused in Pittsburgh.
“I would love to meet with the IU9 (Seneca Highlands Intermediate Unit 9) there in McKean County, and special education directors,” he said. “You have to rely on trusted people to get the word out. When you get out to the rural areas, we have to work a little harder” to get the word out.
LaVallee started this program with one goal in mind — “I was looking for something that would have an impact on kids and their families. I wanted a way to connect with kids.
“What everyone needs to do is to have contact with kids with special needs,” he added, “because it will change them. We need something that will bridge the gap, something to help us understand better.”
Most people can relate to child memories of bike rides. And that’s what LaVallee hopes to give to special needs children.
“Bikes are about $1,800 to sponsor,” he said. Right now, he has sponsors lined up for a lot of bikes, but needs eligible children.
“Every kid deserves a bike,” LaVallee said. He shared a memory of fitting a child for a bike — taking the child out of a wheelchair and putting him on the bicycle for the first time. The child’s face was filled with joy.
“One boy had spina bifida. I asked him how he feels when he rides his bike,” LaVallee said. “He said ‘happy and proud.’ Isn’t that what we want for all our kids? To feel happy and proud of themselves?
“They aren’t left on the porch anymore. They get to ride along with their siblings. We forget sometimes how the siblings are impacted, too.”
Mainly the children who are helped are diagnosed with autism, Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy.
“I didn’t anticipate how the kids’ joy was going to transform my life,” he said. “I wish everybody could say that. If that doesn’t change your heart, you need a heart transplant.”
The adaptive bikes come with a stationary stand, as well, so children can “ride” indoors for exercise, too.
“If you give kids an opportunity, you give them possibilities,” he said. “We’re just the helpers; it’s really the moms and dads who are doing this for their kids. The world will be changed by parents, one child at a time.
“That’s really our goal, empowering kids. We have a supply of bikes and we encourage people to take a chance and apply.”
Eligibility requirements and applications can be found on Variety’s website www.varietypittsburgh.org.
The program serves children and youth who have a documented disability; reside in the service area; are within the age range of 4 to 21; meet the income guidelines; and other requirements outlined on the application.
The income ranges are 400 percent of the poverty level, meaning a family of four would qualify with an income below $97,200.
Donations to the program can be county-specific. More information is available on the agency’s website.