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Special-needs children pedal into fun

Child riding his custom bicycle in Marshfield

​​​​​​​​Ten-year-old Matthew Freese's new bicycle has a lot of custom parts – three wheels, a seat with special supports and a mechanism that allows his parents to steer it.

All are important features that allow Matthew, who spends much of his time in a powered wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, to ride freely under his own power.​

But like most kids, it's style over function that makes it his. Forget the custom pedal system. He loves the bell and that his bike is purple.

"When he sees people he knows, he likes to surprise them with the bell," said Lois Swanson, Matthew's mother. "He g​ets to be like other kids. He gets to ride his bike."

Matthew was one of a handful of children who received a bike at last year's Bike Day for special-needs children. This year the event is May 31 at Marshfield Clinic's campus in Marshfield. Experts will offer more than 15 children and their families the chance to ride, test and even buy customized bikes similar to Matthew's.

 The opportunity for children to get first-hand experience on these bikes is critical. Each child may need a different setup, ranging from special controls to a tandem bike an adult also can ride. All that customization means they aren't cheap. The bikes average about $3,500 each, said Heather Vogel, a Clinic physical therapist who helps organize the event.

But that's another part of the event. Along with having experts from bicycle vendors such as Freedom Concepts, as well as Clinic medical specialists, each of the roughly 15 families that participate will receive $1,300 to help purchase a bike.

Funding comes this year from a $15,000 grant from the Foundation of Ministry Saint Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield. Children's Miracle Network provided funding last year and has set up a special fund for people who want to contribute directly to the bicycle program.

"Every child should be able to learn to ride a bike, but that isn't always the case," said Patti Shafto-Carlson, director of the Foundation of Ministry Saint Joseph's Hospital. "Bike Day provides that opportunity to children who might not otherwise have that chance."

Biking benefits go beyond exercise, said Dr. Jill Meilahn, a pediatric physical medicine specialist at the Clinic who helped start this program.

Research shows physical exercise has mental health benefits that can be as effective as antidepressant medication, Meilahn said. But as importantly, bikes allow these kids to simply be kids.

Swanson couldn't agree more.

"We ask our kids to work hard all the time. Everything is an effort," Swanson said. "These bikes are about letting these kids have fun."

Matthew kept his bike at his elementary school last winter. It allowed him to participate in bike programs during gym class. With three wheels, a cool bell and that awesome purple paint, his classmates love it, too.

"It's one more thing for him to make connections over," Swanson said.

Vogel said the bikes can benefit children who face an array of challenges, whether they can walk on their own but have balance problems or if they use a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy.

"It's so great to see these kids able to get out with their families," Vogel said. "They can get on these bikes and go out and do things that kids love to do."

And that's exactly what Matthew does each day.

"He just took off," Swanson said of his first ride. "It was like a miracle." 


​​The Marshfield Clinic system provides patient care, research and education in more than 50 locations in northern, central and western Wisconsin, making it one of the largest comprehensive medical systems in the United States.


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John Gardner
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