Home > Community, General, Recommendations, Reviews, Sports and Extracurricular Activities > The Magical Volunteer Fairy Visited Us This Week

The Magical Volunteer Fairy Visited Us This Week

You’ve read half a dozen posts about bike camp over the past few months and have probably watched the video of James riding tandem with Jake-the-bike-technician. If I wasn’t so exhausted from hauling the kids back and forth to Hoboken every day I would’ve given you a blow by blow each night of how camp was going because there were definitely stories to tell. I actually started a couple of posts to vent a few times but am glad now that I waited until the end of the camp.

Because now I’m at the blissful part of the week – you know, the part where we have emerged at the other end unscathed (minus my sore back and James’s head-to-toe bruises) and it is the sheer relief that washes away any stress and anxiety I was feeling during the long adventure. Now I can look back on the week knowing that the things I was worried about worked themselves out and I can seem wise and introspective as I tell you of the lessons we learned at bike camp this week.

Basically, the bike camp is run by two people from the Lose The Training Wheels program, a coordinator and a bike technician. They show up with the special bikes and special skills to make it all happen, and apparently spend each week in a different city running a bike camp. “Running bike camp” involves tailoring roller bikes (special bikes created just for the camp) to each special needs child’s ability, deciding when each child is ready to try a real two-wheel bike, and directing the volunteers working with each child during the week. In the meantime, a parent or organization, in this case Teresa Howard and the Hoboken Family Alliance plans out the camp location and finds sponsors, volunteers, space, parking, hotels, funding, etc. – from what I understand it can take 6-9 months to organize the whole thing. A huge endeavor and one that is very appreciated by all.

I want to make sure I acknowledge how much work goes into the planning process because I am about to complain about something, fully realizing that many people put a lot of effort into making it all happen but also having a pretty big interest myself in having it all planned well (see Comment section for follow up here).

In my mind, James needed an energetic person working with him to help him find confidence, feel comfortable, focus on the task at hand while also distracting him enough to not freak out about riding the bike. Not asking too much, right? And as it goes every time I have high expectations…

Before wishing for the perfect volunteer, I guess I should’ve wished for a volunteer, period. My biggest single complaint about the whole week was the complete lack of volunteers for the first two days. Monday and Tuesday there were so few volunteers that they had to ask random parents and caretakers to step in and help out. This would’ve been okay, except for 1) I absolutely could not help out with 2 babies in tow and 2) because the parents had arrived unprepared to volunteer, many of them were dressed inappropriately to be jogging behind a bike for 2 hours (dress shoes, flip flops, skirts) and/or untrained to appropriately interact with the child’s particular special needs.

The volunteers on Monday and Tuesday were truly, sincerely, really great, nice people (most volunteers have to be nice to volunteer!). But the first two days involved parents walking quietly and pleasantly behind James as he fell off of the bike 10,000 times – no “Come on, James!” or “You can do it, buddy!” or “Looking good!” or even any tips on how to pedal faster or take turns better. That was all me and my mom, cheering supportively (“Ride like Voldemort is chasing you!” and “Pedal pedal pedal!” and “go James go” from my 2 yr old) from the sidelines while entertaining two toddlers in 10 square feet of free space.

James wore a very serious, almost pained expression on his face the entire time and clenched the handlebar as if his life depended on it. And it kind of did, because he must have wiped out a dozen times in the first half hour. Nobody else fell off of the roller bikes more than once or twice the entire week, but as you know by now James is a square peg in a round world. My new expectation/wish changed into a volunteer who was strong enough to catch James before he hit the ground (thankfully this was granted). I could tell that the bike camp coordinator was extremely surprised and disappointed by the lack of help, and she commented several times that she had never seen so few volunteers in all of the camps she had run. Boo!

Wednesday went a little better – there were a few more volunteers, and James scored a younger, more energetic guy who walked around the track with him chatting about Star Wars for the first five minutes, but by 15 minutes into the session James had another pleasant (very nice, friendly, good-natured, etc. etc.) volunteer walking him quietly around the track while he fumbled along trying to ride the bike. Wednesday several of the children started trying real two-wheel bikes (not James). James officially did not wipe out for the first day, so at least there were less injuries.

On Thursday, every single last special needs child went outside to ride real two-wheel bikes on the track. Everyone except for James, who now had the entire gym to himself. I felt so bad for him – we hadn’t realized that the roller bikes weren’t allowed outside and had told him he would be riding on the track with everyone else before we got there. I also didn’t realize that we had actually struck gold.

In my last post about bike camp you got to see James riding a tandem bike with Jake-the-bike-technician. Well here is Brian-the-super-amazing-volunteer, running after James on a roller bike this past Thursday. The fact that Brian is running and not casually walking behind James shows obvious progress, not to mention the fact that James is riding the roller bike alone! The not-so-obvious but equally amazing achievement is that James moved from a 3 roller to a 5 roller (there are 8 levels to the roller bikes, level 8 being a two wheel bike).

James and Brian

But let me back up from James’s progress and focus on Brian-the-super-amazing-volunteer (aka Brian Wagner) for a minute. Right off the bat, Brian’s energy was apparent. He introduced himself and told us about his involvement with Bike Hoboken, so we knew he was passionate about biking in general. He started around the track chatting enthusiastically with James and within minutes had James riding around the track faster than he had been all week. I could tell that James was not only more comfortable with Brian, but that Brian knew the secret to James’s success – to distract James from worrying about every move he made on the bike.

Brian encouraging James on the roller bike.

Brian ran behind James giving helpful tips about keeping his head up, which way to lean when turning, and lots and lots of compliments and encouragement for the smallest of victories. He also had no problem being silly and playful with James, something we had not yet seen but that had been sorely needed all week (sorely might be a bad word for it!) Brian had no trouble giving James a little push to get him back up to speed, and that was all it took sometimes. He acted interested in James’s running monologue and the random comments James likes to make. He was just the right amount of concerned but practical if James got nervous or started to fall.

Maybe James was just getting better on the bike by Thursday, you might be thinking. Maybe. But Brian took a break later in the session on Thursday and Jake-the-bike-technician stepped in for a few minutes. Jake is a very nice, very quiet guy. Without Brian, James’s pace slowed down considerably and without the constant conversation and encouragement he got a serious, concerned look on his face again. And then Brian came back, gave James a little push to get him up to speed and they were off!

Friday Brian was back, and without three more paragraphs about how awesome he still was I’ll skip to the part where he got James onto a real two-wheel bike!!!

James on two-wheel for the first time ever

With Brian’s help, James was able to successfully ride the bike around the gym and graduated to the outdoor track just in time for the end of bike camp!

James and Brian on outside track

I cannot emphasize how unlikely this feat seemed up until Thursday afternoon, or what a miracle it is that James got onto a regular bicycle. At the bike camp coordinator’s recommendation, I had been researching adult trikes earlier in the week because James was having so much more trouble than the other kids. But by the end of the week we all agreed that the two-wheel bike was the best route to go. Hooray for James (and hooray for less expensive bikes)!!

Brian was the obvious hero of the story, but I want to mention that there were many other volunteers who made the week even possible for our family. Two days before bike camp started my general plan was to just get through the week as best as I could, mostly on my own, trekking round trip to Hoboken every day. I mentally braced myself for the worst. Then my mom came down for the first two days to help me manage the babies at camp. On Wednesday my dear friend Jaime offered to watch my 2 yr old on so I wouldn’t have to take both babies alone. My sister came down on Thursday to help me again and on Friday my ex and his wife were incredibly helpful with all 3 kids.

See the comments section for the many other fantastic volunteers who worked with James and donated their time and effort to the bike camp as well.

Volunteers are small miracles. There is no obvious reason for them to do what they do but the effect they have and difference they make to others is enormous. What had the potential to be the most difficult week of the summer turned into a manageable time for me and a wild success for James, and it is all thanks to the wonderful volunteers who continue to pop into our life.

Thank you Volunteer Fairy, wherever you are!

World's Best Biker

  1. August 1, 2011 at 7:59 am

    wow! Go James, that’s awesome!

  2. July 31, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    More about Brian Wagner:

    Through cycling Brian volunteers for many worthy programs in the NY/NJ region including American Diabetes Association, Multiple Sclerosis, Autism, Cancer/Leukemia programs and is an active advocate with Bike Hoboken, a non-profit association in Hoboken NJ that is working towards providing bicycle education and safety and peaceful bike/Pedestrian/Motorist co-existence to Hoboken NJ. (Visit BikeHoboken.org and on Facebook at BikeHoboken.)

  3. July 31, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    It has been brought to my attention that I have not given proper credit to the volunteers who donated their time and effort to James and the bike camp before Brian.

    So without further ado, my sincerest thanks to Christine Digo and Joe Mindak, two special parents in the Hoboken community. Your time and effort was greatly appreciated.

    I encourage you to leave the name of your favorite volunteer or volunteers if you attended bike camp and read this post!

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