by Jonathan Weaver
Emily Baker of Vandergrift hadn’t ridden her own bicycle in awhile.
The 12-year-old Leechburg Area School District student suffers from Down Syndrome, but received a pleasant surprise May 9th when she was one of five local teens awarded a custom-fitted bicycle through the “Variety” children’s charity ‘MyBike’ program.
Emily’s mother, Jennifer said she in an advocate for her daughter’s independence – and it showed as Emily rode around the ACMH conference room.
‘It means a lot – she tried a regular bike and it just frustrated her. To see her hop on this one and be ready to go means a lot,” Jennifer said. “She’ll be independent with it and it’ll be nice to see her have some fun.”
Susi Heasley helps Emily at school and said Emily will be able to utilize the bicycle during physical therapy, too if permitted.
“I’m so excited because it’s going to give (Emily) some freedom,” Heasley said. “The elementary’s connected to the high school, so they can go in a nice big circle – It’s a wonderful place to ride a bike.”
The same independence will be felt by Noah Anthony of Kittanning.
Mother, Cathy, explained how much this will help the family.
“When Noah was 10 months old, he was diagnosed with a rare seizure disorder and it caused brain damage. He has seizures to this day and doesn’t get a lot of fun in his life – it breaks our heart,” Cathy said. “He sees everyone else play so this will give him an opportunity to be one of the gang. Freedom, wind blowing in his hair – even if we’re the ones pushing the bike.”
“We’re very grateful,” Cathy tearfully said.
As Emily will be able to with brother Jarod, Noah will now be able to ride on the Armstrong Rails to Trails with 15-year-old brother Devin.
Stephanie Notto, 12 also looks forward to riding her new bike. Her mother, Angel, said Stephanie used to have a fear of falling, but won’t anymore with that third wheel.
“I love it!,” Stephanie said.
Other teens who were awarded a bike by Variety CEO Charlie LaVallee include Conner Shilling, 11 of Kittanning and Samantha Stefko, 10 from Freeport.
LaVallee said he has been changed from listening to parent testimonials.
“We’re over 250 bikes now – the governor just gave away the 250th bike when he was in Pittsburgh recently, and we’re only six months into this,” LaVallee said. “When we initially started, the goal was 100 – then they said 200 – and sometime this summer, we’re going to hit 300. That’s just really exciting.
“Every child here today (was) special,” LaVallee said. “This is a day we’ll always remember.”
The program is currently in 10 Pennsylvania counties, but he hopes the program is soon implemented in the commonwealth’s 57 other counties and be a model across the United States. Each adaptive bike is $1,800 to sponsor and made appropriate to each teen’s needs by Blackburn’s medical equipment in Tarentum.
“We may be in the middle of something that’s bigger than us that could spread across the country” LaVallee said.
ACMH CEO John Lewis encouraged the five recipients to have fun this summer and with the help of Human Resources Vice President Anne Remaley, made the conference room into a ‘track’ for a few laps.
“This is very-much in line with the mission and vision of the hospital, in terms of improving health and wellness among the community and residents of Armstrong County,” Lewis said. “We’re in a serious business, but really we want you to have fun. For me as an advocate of fun, these bikes are right in line with that.”
Remaley announced that the hospital also plans to set up a track during next year’s 5K to allow ‘MyBike’ recipients room to ride.