Aidan Griffin curved around a light pole, his face lit up with the bliss of fresh air, balance and speed that only happens when you're riding a bike.
Aidan, 12, was among 32 youngsters who spent last week at Lose the Training Wheels, a national traveling bike camp for special-needs children.
The five-day camp, organized by members of the local Autism Society and sponsored by local businesses, is an outgrowth of 20 years of research by a mechanical engineer in adapting bicycle training for children with disabilities.
After learning on special bikes, kids who had never ridden because of their fears or disabilities were on two-wheelers on their own by day three of the camp.
"This has been awesome," said Kristin Laulainen, who signed up her autistic 13-year-old son Jack for the camp as well as his sister, 10-year-old Quinn.
"She has always been scared to ride a two-wheeler," Laulainen said. "After three days, she's riding on her own."
Said Grandma Bev Laulainen, "I've just informed Quinn that I will ride around the lake with her next week."
"I get a thrill every time I see this," said Sue Reimers of Winters, Calif., a supervisor who has worked with Lose the Training Wheels for 10 years.
An adaptive PE teacher, Reimers started as a summer volunteer and graduated to a paid employee. "Riding a bike is a milestone," she said. "Most children reach it, and we cheer them on, and they go on with life.
"Atypical learners," she said, may never sail across that childhood hurdle. "This modified bike allows them to build skills in a safe atmosphere."
All riders have three volunteers throughout the camp to watch keep them safe and be sure they get water when they need it.
"They act as spotters, motivators, safety enforcers," Reimers said.
"This is about family, it's recreation, it's transportation, it's self esteem, it's riding with friends," she said. "I see them gain skills, and they become more confident. They start to smile."
‘This is fun'
The local Lose the Training Wheels camp took place on the vast, smooth concrete floors of the Cowlitz Expo Center.
For their first lesson, the kids rode the adapted bikes. Each one has a typical front wheel and handle bars, but the back wheel is replaced by a series of low rollers. The first day, the roller fits flat against the floor.
As a rider gets used to balancing, a roller that is a little fatter in the middle than at the edges replaces the flat roller. Little by little, the rollers get more and more wobbly, and the rider becomes better and better at balancing on the bike.
Each adapted bicycle also has gear changes to adjust for speeds and a handle sticking straight out the back from the bike seat. This allows one of the trio of volunteers to continually help steer and balance until it's safe to let go - much like a parent careening down the street with his or her hand on the bike rack in back.
The first day of camp, the kids looked curious, or concerned, or happy to be coasting along this way.
Then there was Ryan.
Ryan Lomax, 10, sped off so enthusiastically he had to be reined in by volunteers who could barely keep up.
"Ryan, wait a minute!" called volunteer Bob Johnson, jogging to catch up.
Quieter and slower, very focused on his movement, a tall, slim Jack Laulainen glided by. "This is fun," he said.
'We should do it here'
Lose the Training Wheels was the brainchild of Richard Klein, a retired University of Illinois professor of mechanical engineering, and his wife, Marjorie.
The Kleins knew that riding a bike would help special-needs kids gain self-reliance, pride and the ecstasy of peeling down a path on their own steam.
Now 10 years old, the program became a non-profit about three years ago. All summer it sends out eight fleets of special bikes, which travel with teams of two supervisors and a nifty portable work station, bins crammed with bike tools and charts for paperwork.
Snagging a program like Lose the Training Wheels - which costs each participant $150 - took the combined energies of local parents, a host agency and a slew of volunteers and sponsors.
"We have a group of moms with kids who have special needs," said Hazar Eid, whose son Faris has autism. "We knew they were doing this in Portland, and we said, ‘We should do it here.' "
Eid and Sally Bartlett, whose daughter Katie has Down syndrome, threw themselves into the project; Marti Johnson at Life Works came on board as the host agency.
"She gave us the management structure," Bartlett said.
One of the toughest parts, as it turns out, was getting enough participants, Bartlett said. They decided to make it an "integrated" camp, open to any child needing help learning to ride.
Thanks to 26 local businesses and groups, anyone who needed scholarship help received it, Eid said. "All the restaurants we asked said yes to lunches," she added. "We were overwhelmed by the support of the community."
Longview, the first city in Washington to sponsor a Lose the Training Wheels camp, may do it again, the organizers said. Because of our enterprise and a previous camp in Portland, they said, Seattle and Spokane want a chance to Lose the Training Wheels, too.
The pride of 32 local riders graduating from the camp is multiplied by family members who never thought they'd take a bike ride with these kids.
"He wouldn't have learned any other way," said Jodi Rogers, whose son Justin had never ridden because they live out in the country.
"My husband is so excited," Rogers said. "We're going to the beach and KahNeeta, and we're taking our bikes."
By the fourth day of camp, 20 of the 32 participants were riding bikes on their own. Standing in a light drizzle on day four, Roger and other parents watched their kids ride, turn and brake, oblivious to the weather.
"My little man's on wheels," said Lora Kenney, watching her son Colton Adelblue, 11.
Colton, who is autistic, "didn't want to come," Kenney said. His older brother Dakota became a volunteer, and after only two days, Colton graduated from the "rollers" part of the program to his own two-wheeler.
"He's on his way," his mother said. "It works."