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Custom bikes give special-needs kids in Western Pa. normal childhood experience

| Friday, March 22, 2013, 11:11 a.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Gary McDonald III, 5, tests his new bike as his mother, Pamela McDonald, and grandmother Mona Weimer watch his excitement. Variety, the Children’s Charity “My Bike Program” provides adaptive bikes for children with special needs.

One by one, the kids rode their bikes down the long hallway of Excela Square at Norwin.

First came Seth Elcock on his shiny, red bike.

“He can pedal, but he doesn't stop very well,” said his dad, Dennis Elcock of Scottdale.

Next came 5-year-old Gary McDonald III on his new, blue bike.

“You are stylin' dude,” his mom, Pamela, of Seward told him, as he pedaled and steered as best he could. “This is great.”

And then there was Abigail Yenich on the lime-green bike her father, Vaughn of South Huntingdon picked out.

“I guess daddy's going to have to do all the steering,” he told her as she pedaled without touching the handlebars.

A first bike for most kids is a rite of passage — a chance to break free and show a little independence.

But for Seth, Gary and Abigail, this first bike is an opportunity to be like every other kid.

The three received their bikes through the My Bike program, a new initiative by Variety the Children's Charity, which provides equipment and experiences to children with disabilities to help them live their lives to the fullest.

The My Bike program kicked off in November with a goal to provide 200 bikes to kids with disabilities in the 10-county Southwestern Pennsylvania region.

“(Parents) told us how important it is for their kids to have typical childhood experiences,” said Charles P. LaVallee, chief executive officer of Variety.

With Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield as a founding sponsor and numerous other individuals and groups providing funds, Variety so far has raised the money needed to purchase 245 bikes.

LaVallee said 180 bikes already are promised to kids, so Variety is looking to identify 65 more children who need them.

Excela Health is helping Variety locate children in Westmoreland County through its network of pediatricians and rehabilitation specialists.

“This isn't acute care, but this is about the health of our children and the health of our community,” LaVallee said.

Each adaptive bike, which costs $1,800, is custom-made for its recipient. The three-wheeled bikes even have guide sticks, so parents can help kids steer as they learn to ride.

“It's about giving kids a chance to ride bikes with their friends and ... with their siblings, but it's also about giving kids the chance to get their affirmation that their parents are proud of them,” LaVallee said.

Greg Amond, who has had 59 surgeries in his 13 years of life because of spina bifida, showed off the riding skills he's learned since receiving his bike from Variety in December.

His mom, Clarissa Amond, 32, of Derry Township, said for years she's struggled with what to do with Greg in the summer.

“Every year (I said), ‘I need to get him a bike. If we could just get him a bike he could be outside,'” Amond said. “And every year you know what stood in the way — the cost,” she said. “As a single parent, I couldn't afford that. I couldn't afford it, but why doesn't my child have the right to have a bike to ride with his friends.”

Sherry Elcock was excited for the opportunities the bike will offer Seth, 14, who has autism.

They got him to practice on a three-wheeled bike to see how he would do.

“It brought tears to my eyes because he was able to navigate,” she said. “This is something now we can do as a family.”

Vaughn and Suzanne Yenich agreed that the bike will help them be active with Abigail, 7, who has cerebral palsy and visual impairment.

“Hopefully, we can do some more stuff and get outside,” Suzanne Yenich said.

They think they'll even take the bike to the mall instead of using a stroller or wheelchair.

Pamela McDonald said her 4-year-old son Dakota can't wait to ride bikes with his older brother Gary, 5, who has a seizure disorder that impairs his motor skills.

“He doesn't have to be cooped up in a stroller,” Pamela McDonald said. “It just gives him a little more independence, so it's a great thing.”

Jennifer Reeger is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or jreeger@tribweb.com.

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