Bikes for special needs children in Brooklyn

It all started with a run — uphill, and against traffic.

Sandra Alfonzo was taking her daily jog in Prospect Park two summers ago, training for another marathon, when she saw a boy about 6 years old in a wheelchair being pushed along by a woman. Seconds later, she heard a screaming child – also around 6 years old – whizzing down the hill on his bicycle, screeching not in pain or fear but with absolute joy. “Look at how fast I’m going!” he yelled to his father.

Sandra Alfonzo, owner of Behind Bars in Brooklyn, a South Slope bicycle shop, wants to custom-build bikes and provide them to families of special-needs children. Andrea Mohin, The New York Times

By Helene Stapinski, The New York Times September 7, 2017

When the cycling boy passed the child in the wheelchair, Ms. Alfonzo was directly between the two, and she saw one face filled with happiness, the other with longing.

“I got to the top of the hill and I just had to stop running,” Ms. Alfonzo said. “I was choking with tears.” But it was in that flash that her plan was born: to raise money to buy bicycles for special-needs kids in the city.

Ms. Alfonzo, 47, who owns and operates Behind Bars in Brooklyn, a South Slope bicycle shop, knew everything about bikes, though nothing about fund-raising. She knew that bikes custom-built for special-needs children would retail for around $4,000 each. Ms. Alfonzo figured if she could get a small donation for every flat she fixed, which she would then match, she would have enough at the end of the year for one bike.

Ms. Alfonzo recently put a sign in the window of her shop about her project, which she has named AdaptAbility. She hopes to commission the first bicycle by October. Andrea Mohin, The New York Times

When she bounced the idea off one of her regular customers, she had no idea he was in the business of fund-raising. “I told her I thought it was a great idea, but she could think on a bigger scale,” said Gregory Cohen, a Kensington resident who helps run Cause Effective, a fund-raising company. He donated his time and knowledge and introduced Ms. Alfonzo to ioby, a community crowdfunding organization that could provide non-profit status and handle tax-deductible donations.

But that was just one of the obstacles.

“This is not like putting a bike under the Christmas tree,” Mr. Cohen said. “You have to find a kid for whom an adaptable bike is suitable and make sure they have someone who is willing to coach them and stay with it.”

He and Ms. Alfonzo reached out to physical therapists in local schools, who had a list of children with disabilities waiting for the custom bicycles. “We are looking for parents who really want to do this with their kids,” said Ms. Alfonzo. “We don’t want to spend all this money and not have them use it.”

Ms. Alfonzo contacted Freedom Concepts, a Canadian company that builds adaptive bicycles for children with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida and other disabilities. James Wall, a representative for the company in the New York area, visited Ms. Alfonzo with two models: large tricycles with seatbelts, foot straps, specially designed handlebars and seats, and sometimes high backs with head support, depending on the disability. The bikes are adjustable and designed to grow with the child for five years.

“Every kid deserves to ride a bike,” said Mr. Wall. “But these kids can’t walk into a Walmart and a get a bike off the shelf.” Parents of special-needs children already have so many expenses and obstacles that finding money for a custom bike is often too overwhelming, he explained. Insurance and Medicaid don’t cover the cost.

A custom bicycle. Caitlin Ochs, The New York Times

At trade shows, parents of these children will show up and “are literally in tears watching them pedal a bike for the first time,” Mr. Wall said. “Then when I tell them how much these bikes cost, they cry even harder.”

Freedom Concepts, a Winnipeg company owned by a man named Ken Vanstraelen, started out manufacturing hockey sticks and rickshaw carts. But in 1991, Mr. Vanstraelen received a request to build a bike for a boy with cerebral palsy, and his focus changed. The company now works with families, corporations and donors, to fit as many kids as possible with their own ride. “I like to say we’re a for-profit company with very little profit,” said Mr. Wall, laughing. He mentioned that the company offered Ms. Alfonzo a 20 percent discount on the bikes.

A few weeks ago, Ms. Alfonzo put a sign in the window about her project, which she has christened AdaptAbility. And as of last week, the link for donations went up, with a window to donate through December. Ms. Alfonzo is optimistic that they’ll have enough money by October to commission the first bicycle.

Once the money is raised and a recipient is chosen, Freedom will then design the bike to fit that child.

Ms. Alfonzo is hoping other bicycle shops in the city will join the effort. “There are so many bike shops in the city,” she said. “Imagine if each one could raise the money for one of these kids? It would be amazing.”

The Particulars
  • Project AdaptAbility, custom bikes for children with disabilities
  • Site Behind Bars in Brooklyn, 610 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn
  • Driving Force Sandra Alfonzo
  • In the Works Since 2015
  • Cost $4,000 per bike
  • Biggest Obstacle Matching the child to the correct custom bike
A version of this article appears in print on September 10, 2017, on Page MB2 of the New York edition with the headline: Flat Tires That Aid a Good Cause

Source The New York Times

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