It happened before I could stop it. A mother, watching her developmentally disabled daughter ride a bike for the first time, began crying as I interviewed her on live TV this morning. Seconds later, I felt big, wet tears stream down my face and my voice began to quiver. I thought, “Oh my God, keep it together, Norma!”
I got swept away by the moment—and I’m glad I did. Journalists pride themselves on being impartial and, during emotional situations, having a healthy detachment. Today that was blown away. It was this family’s story that stirred me. The mother has twins—one born with no complications, the other, the little girl who was on the bike, with cerebral palsy. Valerie couldn’t ride a bike before this week. Instead, she had to sit in a small trailer on the back of her mother’s bike and be pulled along. Today, Valerie whizzed by us on a special bike made for children with developmental disabilities. Valerie and about three dozen other children took part in the “Lose The Training Wheels” program presented by UNYFEAT, a grassroots organization run by parents of children with autism. Valerie and many of the other children don’t have autism, but they’re invited to take part in the program that, in a matter of days, gets kids riding a two-wheeled bike.
It’s a milestone—the day you ditch the training wheels. Think back to the day you first mastered the art of riding a bike. You were wobbly at first, with your parents walking and then running alongside you. Then, as you felt more secure, they let go of you. You felt fear, then terror, then disbelief as you, YOU, were riding down the driveway or sidewalk by yourself! Tell me, can you ever replicate that moment as an adult? That moment during which you felt like you could do anything!
Every child deserves that feeling and programs like “Lose The Training Wheels” make it possible. They give kids, some who have struggled their whole lives with one challenge or another, the confidence to do what they’ve seen other kids do with seemingly little difficulty.
I can only imagine what it feels like for a parent to witness the transformation. This morning I saw one boy, a 16 year-old with a learning disability, flat out refuse to get on a bike. His mother tried to gently persuade him. After all, he had ridden the day before, yet, today he could not be convinced. Twenty minutes later he was up on a special bike that helped him maintain his balance. Thirty minutes later, he was on a two-wheeled bike with a volunteer trotting and then sprinting behind him. His mother was beaming—she looked radiant!
Now back to Valerie, the little girl with CP. What I didn’t tell you is that her twin, Bethany, was watching from the sidelines. Bethany excitedly told me, “Now we can ride bikes together!” That’s honestly what made me lose it. This little girl who for years, has watched her sister struggle to walk with braces, now felt as if they could finally do something as equals. The love this little girl has for her twin was so evident, so alive, that I couldn’t help but get emotional. I have a sister. She doesn’t have a disability but, as her big sister and lifelong protector, I can relate to the joy Bethany feels. I would sacrifice anything for my sister’s happiness—it’s just what sisters do.
Summer is flying by but I can bet that the summer of 2012 won’t easily fade from the memories of the families I met today. It’s the summer when the impossible faded, when “I can’t” turned into “I can!”, and when two-wheels gave a child wings.