On a summer morning, kids with special needs ride bikes in a Longview parking lot.
“Pedal, pedal, power, power,” shouts a young woman in an orange shirt. Her name is Jill Sitton and she’s been here all week. “Go, go, go make sure we get around all the pillars,” she hollers.
Sitton has watched the children overcome fear and learn the delicate dance of mind and muscle to create balance.
“This is my third year doing it and I’m still amazed every single year when they get up and they're riding on their own and they don’t need me," she said. "I just stand here and I cheer and I yell and direct them away from obstacles."
To appreciate how far they've come, we must travel back in time five days. Then, 13-year-old Anna Heitmeyer seemed unsure about riding a specially modified bike. She has Down's Syndrome and has crashed on her bike in the past. But five days later, she's riding on her own.
“There she goes,” shouts her dad, Steven.
Her parents could not be more proud.
“Just the fact that she's on and going by herself is an amazing thing. She's overcoming her fear,” said her mom Diane.
She will now be able to join the family's favorite activity, riding bikes. “That really is awesome. That's really nice to see,” said her dad Steven.
The kids are learning from a group called "Lose the Training Wheels."
They use rollers for a back tire which progressively require more balance. On the last day, they switch to riding their own bikes. Group leaders say 80 percent learn to ride in just one week.
“I'm beyond words,” said Heidi Blackwelder as she watched her son Aidan ride by himself. “Because a week ago he wouldn’t even get on a bike.”
Aidan is a boy with a high-functioning form of autism. On Monday he seemed comfortable, but challenged on the special bike. Now he's riding the brand-new bike his mom bought on a special trip to Portland.
“I want to see my son have greater independence and more self esteem and greater confidence. And he's gained all those things and if it wasn’t for the program, it wouldn't have happened," she said.
Just next to the parking lot, Ashley Flitcroft still practices inside. She has brain damage from a blood infection as an infant. She's not riding by herself yet.
But being on a two-wheeled bike is a big step toward what her mom hopes will one day be independence.
“I want her to be able to go and do what she wants to do as she gets older and is mentally able to be out on her own," her mom, Kim Flitcroft.
Riding a bike usually happens pretty quickly for kids. It takes those with special needs longer, which is why they and their parents celebrate it more.
“That was awesome,” Jill Sitton said as Anna rolled her bike to a stop.
“It was, Anna, good job," her father added.
It’s a celebration that can last a lifetime, riding their very own bikes.