The look of determination on Ian Lupinek’s face as he rolled toward independence may’ve belied sheer joy.
He’s getting closer now.
So many summers he tried, but he faced different priorities. There was therapy. There was education. There was so much that comes for children diagnosed with autism.
He never mastered the skill of riding a bike.
But he’s not done collecting his balance to try. The 17-year-old from Greer is among 40 individuals with varying disabilities who gathered recently at the Taylors Rec Center for the iCan Bike program’s fourth annual local summer camp, sponsored by the Eastside Family YMCA.
He kept his lips tight and his eyes only forward as he pedaled across the gym floor on a recent Monday with the help of a volunteer at the handle of a special training bike.
“He came home and said, ‘This is one of the best days ever,’ ” said his mother, Kathy. “He’s autistic, you know, and they don’t just go around saying ‘This is one of the best days ever' very often.”
Two days later he spent some time on a typical bike with the hope of soon being able to ride on his own.
“That’s a big thing, when he gets a chance to try to learn something that he has never been able to do and he knows his peers can do it,” said Lupinek. “That’s huge.”
The camp boasts about an 80-percent success rate, according to Lindsay Buckles, the Eastside Family YMCA development specialist who serves as director.
Instruction is conducted by the iCan Shine nonprofit organization that collaborates with local partners to hold more than 100 bike camps in 32 states and four Canadian provinces each year. The organization added iCan Swim and iCan Dance programs this year.
“We see amazing, life-changing things happen all the time,” said iCan Shine floor supervisor Manda Krimmer, a teacher from Washington, D.C., in her fifth camp of her third summer with the program. “We have riders ranging from the age of 8 all the way up. I think the oldest rider that we’ve had is somewhere in the mid-70s.
“We have a lot for whom this is their driver’s license. They may not be able to drive for whatever reason, and this is how they can do it. This is their freedom and independence.”
For all in Taylors, the only camp of its kind in the state, the program comes with a helmet and a bike to keep, and for some, it comes at no cost. The Down Syndrome Family Alliance of Greenville provides scholarships for individuals with Down syndrome, but others paid $100 registration fees to participate this year.
This marked the first year that there was any cost associated with the camp for any of the participants. Buckles hopes it'll be the last by attracting increased financial support.
“I love the different dynamics of the child learning how to ride but then the parent also seeing their child learn how to ride,” Buckles said. “You kind of get the best of both worlds – tears of joy and excitement when they’re finally on those two wheels going.
“I remember one child riding a tandem bike just beaming cheek to cheek. The mother broke out into tears because she’d never seen her son that happy. It was an amazing moment to see.”
The opportunity, alone, is “amazing,” according to Carmen Barksdale of Fountain Inn, who took her 13-year-old niece Jayla to participate after hearing about the camp’s existence just hours before.
“The smile on her face is amazing,” Barksdale said. “When we tried before we couldn’t even get her to pedal. She would say, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do that.’ This is wonderful.”
That’s how Kathy Lupinek feels.
“This is awesome, just to have this and people willing to help him learn with the equipment and facilities and the staff to do it,” said Lupinek. “Kids with special needs can do so much. Sometimes they just need people to slow down, give them extra time, give them support, listen to them, and sometimes it’s just amazing what they can do.”