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Six months ago, an idea came to Stephen Houston, fully formed, as he sat in church: Put bikes on the Swamp Rabbit Trail for kids with special needs.
"It's an activity we all take for granted," said Houston, an avid mountain biker. "Kids that would never be able to ride a bike should get the chance to get the sensation we all get when zooming down the trail."
That day, the Heather's Ride program was born. Now a special-needs bike, valued at $7,200, is housed at TTR Bikes next to the Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery, waiting for families who want to reserve it. Houston, an account manager in pharmaceutical sales, is "very close" to getting funding for two more children's bikes and another for adults with special needs.
"I want a whole army of these," he said. "But I'm hoping to have four by May."
The project was a natural fit for Houston, whose sister Heather was diagnosed with Sturge-Weber, a severe form of epilepsy, at age 3. Now 43, Heather continues to be an inspiration for him.
"She always focuses on what she can do and what she wants to do, not what she can't do," Houston said. Despite discomfort and spasticity on her left side caused by the disease, she rides 20 miles a day on her stationary bike, though she couldn't ride on a trail on a regular bike because of the agility needed to steer around people and stop quickly.
The new Heather's Ride bike eradicates those problems.
Freedom and flexibility
After extensive research, Houston chose the Excursion model, custom-made by Freedom Concepts, which allows the person with special needs to sit up front with a parent or caregiver in the back.
Archie Moore, a 9-year-old with Down syndrome, has been down bike trails before, but always in a carrier following behind a bike.
"I hate to put him in those, because he's nine, and those are for toddlers and babies," said Archie's mom, Ann Moore. "I feel like I'm selling him out when I do that."
With two seven-year-old siblings, Archie wants to do what they do, but low muscle tone makes biking a challenge. The Heather's Ride bike is the perfect solution, she said. "We've been thinking about how we could get him on a bike with us. This bike has his safety concerns in mind but also gives him that sense of independence, that he's like the other kids."
She also appreciates the feature that allows the rider to contribute as much as he or she is able. It is designed to allow a child to do 50 percent of the work, just like any tandem bike – or if strength and coordination are issues, the child can have zero resistance, so he is pedaling independently from the rider in back. The child can also take on 25 percent of the resistance.
The bike is completely adjustable, and the front pedals have Velcro straps and a guide rope that keeps the foot platform level, since many children have problems with their feet dropping when trying to pedal a traditional bike.
Houston has spoken with members of the local medical community and they have seen numerous applications for the bike, including helping kids or adults with Down syndrome, autism and epilepsy, as well as people recovering from seizures or strokes.
Renting the bikes will be free.
"These families are spending their money on everything else," Houston said. "Many of these folks have abilities to do so many things; they just need access."
Passion and purpose
Stan Healy, administrator at Roger C. Peace Rehabilitation Hospital, agreed to foot the bill for the first bike and has pledged to fund another in 2013. Several other organizations have given verbal commitments to fund bikes and are finalizing details.
When James Wall, the East Coast sales rep for Freedom Concepts, heard what Houston was doing, he cut the price 25 percent, from $7,200 to $5,600.
Healy said the program fits with his hospital's mission of helping people overcome obstacles to improve their quality of life.
"This is one more tool that will allow people to get out and do what they want to do," he said. "Our focus is on ability, not disability, and this is a solution. It's just the right thing to do."
Houston plans to go to area cycling groups and encourage them to "give their passion a purpose" by helping out or donating. He is in the midst of filing the paperwork to become a nonprofit, and then all donations will be tax-deductible.
A Heather's Ride kickoff is being planned for early summer, allowing interested families and groups to try the bikes. He hopes that Heather, who lives in Tennessee, will be there for the kickoff and will be able to take a ride on the bike that bears her name.
Ann Moore would love to be there, not just so her son can enjoy a bike ride but also to show gratitude for the community spirit of Houston and other contributors to the project.
"It's an answer to a problem that we've had for so long," Moore said. "It's so great when the community tries to include everybody. It's such a good feeling."