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Adaptive bike program gives 12-year-old Kittanning boy first chance to ride

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Last spring, Connor Shilling, of Kittanning (center), received an adaptive bike from the Pittsburgh-based charity Variety’s My Bike Program, which provides adaptive bikes to children with disabilities. He received the bike with (from left) his pediatrician, Kenneth Keppel, his father, Steve Shilling, brother, Ryan Shilling and mother, Laura Shilling.

Twelve-year-old Connor Schilling just wanted to ride a bike in 2013.

Connor, who lives in Kittanning, has been through a lot in his short life, which made biking difficult.

He has Down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and pervasive development disorder — which is part of the autism spectrum — and sensory issues, said his mother, Laura Schilling.

In addition, he was born with a heart defect and had to have corrective surgery at 2 months old.

But in April, Connor finally got to take a ride when he received a royal blue adaptive bike from the “My Bike” program, sponsored by Variety, a Pittsburgh-based children's charity.

Connor started on a tricycle with a modified seat, but he didn't have the lower body strength to pedal it. Laura Schilling and Connor's father, Steve, hooked a trailer bicycle onto his brother Ryan's bicycle so he could ride along — to no avail.

Their final attempt was a tandem bicycle so Connor could ride along with Ryan. But his feet couldn't reach the pedals, and Laura Schilling was afraid he would get caught in the bike's chain.

The Schilling family first heard of the My Bike program from the Down Syndrome Clinic at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh and through Connor's school, Clelian Heights School for Exceptional Children in Greensburg.

“When I heard about the program, I jumped because I knew it would be adaptive, so the bike would be just right for him,” Laura Shilling said.

Laura Shilling said she was thrilled when Variety approved Connor's application for a bike. She wanted him to be surprised when they gave him the bike in ACMH Hospital. But Connor caught on quickly when he saw several of his friends and the bikes.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Bike,' and made a hand motion like holding handlebars,” Schilling said. “He knew right away why he was there and that a bike was going to be his.”

Variety began the “My Bike” program in November 2012. It has distributed 385 bicycles, including 28 in Armstrong County.

Each one is customized with safety features for each child and is designed based on the child's specific disability, according to Variety CEO Charlie LaVallee.

Connor's adaptive bike has three wheels, a large seat, safety harnesses and modified handlebars, Shilling said.

Each bike costs $1,800 and is paid for through sponsorships, LaVallee said.

140 bikes available

The organization has 140 adaptive bikes available and ready to be distributed to disabled children, he said.

The organization hopes to collect sponsorships to provide more bikes.

Although Variety serves a 14 county area, LaVallee said all donations can be designated by county.

“The whole dynamic of being able to do things together, with friends and family, and not being left out is what we're all about,” LaVallee said. “If everybody is riding their bike, and you can ride despite your disabilities, you're just another kid.

“What we want is for all kids to feel happy and proud they can ride a bike.”

Connor's first ride came on a portion of the Armstrong Rails to Trails, Schilling said, because it is relatively flat.

Once he was strapped onto the bicycle, Connor took off like a rocket, his mother said laughing.

“I was just screaming in joy because he was just going, and Ryan was going with him,” Schilling said. “He was no longer challenged — he became independent and could do whatever he wanted.

“And I wasn't worried because he had three wheels, so he couldn't really go off balance and fall.”

Laura said the My Bike program has improved Connor's quality of life.

She recommends the program to anyone with a developmentally disabled child who might not be able to get outside and enjoy bicycling otherwise.

“For us, to see Connor happy brings us such a simple level of joy because he's been through so many challenges in his life,” Schilling said. “But this is now one less challenge for him to face.”

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303, ext. 1337, or bpedersen@tribweb.com.

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