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Two wheels make a world of difference

"They were on a bike for the first time," said River Falls resident Holly Ness about the high school students in the Special Education Bikes program.

After seven months of planning and help from many sources, the SPEB program pedaled to fruition three Thursdays ago as the eight kids ranging in age from 13-21 rode around the parking lot at Meyer Middle School.

Ness worked with the school district's 29-year adaptive physical education teacher Dennis Blank, The Route bike shop owner Adam Schmidt and local bike collector/philanthropist Cecil Bjork to make the SPEB program happen.

Said Blank: "A lot of the kids can't ride bikes because they don't have the balance," and added that Ness deserves 99.9% of the credit for putting the SPEB program together.

Mother, wife, avid bicyclist and, for the past 27 years, a school bus driver, Ness said she began thinking about the idea after reading a story in a teachers' magazine. Adult-sized training wheels could help challenged kids ride a bike.

Eventually she approached high school special education teacher Cece Gillis, then set about the tasks of finding bikes, raising funds, and readying the bikes for kids' use.

"Every time I talked to someone, they gave me two, three more names to talk to," Ness said.

Former mayor and longtime resident Bjork keeps a bike yard of sorts and runs a program for which he refurbishes old bikes then ships them to poor countries. He agreed to donate the program's first eight bikes and also helped get them in safe, working condition.

Schmidt said about Bjork, "He renovates and fixes 100 to 200 every year," adding that Bjork works in a big barn that's neither heated nor cooled.

Ness learned at The Route that big training wheels, which are 10-12 inches in diameter, made in America and called "Fat Wheels," cost between $120-$150 per set.

"Between him (Bjork) and Adam, they would fix these bikes," said Ness.

Schmidt said bike mechanics converted some of them from multi-geared to one gear and from a two-handed to a one-handed brake system. He adjusted each bike to its rider on SPEB's first day.

Ness said the Lions, Kiwanis, Knights of Columbus, Kinnickinnic Health Foundation and the high school's Future Business Leaders of America group donated funds.

Fat Wheels roll on

"We look to more of a lifetime emphasis with sports for these kids," Blank said.

He said their "usual" physical activities include walking, swimming, bowling and now bicycling. He'd also like to find a bicycle setup that could tow the kids who cannot ride.

"The looks on the kids' faces and riding that bike and the confidence they're gaining: It's invaluable," said Blank.

Schmidt, who has worked a lot with special needs riders over the years, said, "It's a rewarding project. It's great to see the kids get so excited."

Ness said they picked Meyer Middle School for riding because the parking lot is flatter and bears less traffic. Initial feedback from parents and children is positive.

"This is a means of transportation and independence for them," said Ness.

All the SPEB contributors intend to expand it to the middle and elementary schools. Ness said they need bikes, money and eventually a place to store the bicycles as well as rebuild them.

"This isn't done yet," she smiled.

Ness said she held faith that SPEB would happen. From a former job as a children's ministry director at a church, she learned how charitable and generous people can be.

With a physical education degree from UW-River Falls and time spent teaching, Ness said kids and special education have always been a part of her life. She and her husband often camp and enjoy the outdoors, including bike riding on the trails around River Falls.

Ness said about the SPEB startup project, "I've had fun and enjoyed it."