Cycling toward confidence

Ashlyn Knight watches video of her two-wheel bike ride with her mom, Melissa Pridemore. Ashlyn participated in the Lose the Training Wheels day camp.

Ashlyn Knight is graduating. She's learned enough in her indoor bicycle lessons to ride out in the parking lot. She's gotten herself in "biking shape," she told her mom.

The moment is not without a few frightened tears, along with chants of "you can do anything" from young volunteers Alex Dolce and Jackson Knowlton. Before long, the 12-year-old takes off, doing cautious loops around the parking lot with three helpers by her side.

At this point, Ashlyn is not the only one crying. Her mother, two young sisters and other volunteers are too, proud of her accomplishment.

Ashlyn is one of 26 children participating in Lose the Training Wheels, a five-day camp hosted this week by the Down Syndrome Association of the Lowcountry at the Charleston Area Convention Center. With helmets on and a volunteer within arm's reach, participants get 75-minute sessions each day in bike-riding, progressing from a specially made training bike to a two-wheeler with a guiding bar held by a volunteer, before eventually making their way to the parking lot.

The national organization, which hosts about 70 camps a year, was brought to the Lowcountry for the first time last year thanks to the work of Gene Carpenter and Christina Oxford, two DSAL volunteers and each a mother of a daughter with Down syndrome.

Carpenter said she had always wanted her 11-year-old Elizabeth to ride a bike when she read about the program and decided to use funds from DSAL's Buddy Walk to bring it to Charleston.

"It is so fulfilling because everyone here has wanted this for their child," Carpenter said. "There is a deep desire for them to go on family bike rides or riding with friends."

For Ashlyn, that includes family bicycle trips to the neighborhood pool and Menchie's frozen yogurt shop. At last summer's camp, she was never able to make it to the parking lot, according to her mom, Melissa Pridemore. About 20 percent of participants don't. This time, she was one of the earliest to reach this final, crucial stage.

"It is so important that they make it outside because, otherwise, the work was for nothing," Carpenter said.

Beyond providing a new means of transportation and family fun, Carpenter said it is a substantial confidence builder for the young riders. Only 10 percent of children with Down syndrome and 20 percent with autism will ever learn to ride a bike, according to the national camp.

"For people who have to work so hard at things, it's such an accomplishment," she said.

Pat Bowden and Rachel Vallario were two of 18 volunteers for the week from the Catholic Heart Workcamp. Since working with Ashlyn, they have made plans to collaborate with Carpenter to bring the camp to their home state of Florida.

"I've learned so much about how unique people with autism and Down syndrome truly are," Vallario said.