Liam Blais rounds the track at Fernie Secondary School, participating in the annual Terry Fox Run. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press

Giving the gift of Freedom; adaptive bikes open world of opportunity for Fernie youth

Suzanne and Chad Blais watched as their son Liam rode his bike by himself, and with his peers, for the first time.

The eight-year-old youth grinned from ear-to-ear as he rounded the Fernie Secondary School track with his classmates during the annual Terry Fox Run. Alongside Liam rode seven-year-old Lilyanna Carlson, another youth who was the recipient of a new adaptive bike, last Friday.

The bikes, however, came to them in a rather unusual way; from two strangers on a mission to help others feel included.

For years, Jay and Deb Zammit have dreamed of cycling across Canada. But when the opportunity came to depart on their journey, they decided to do something that would make it extra special.

The Fernie couple’s passion for cycling and compassion for others has created a campaign that in turn has changed the lives of many.

Having worked with Freedom Concept Cycles in the past, the Zammit’s decided they would work with the company to donate a special needs bike to a family in every province they traveled through.

Originally committing to 10 bikes, the Zammit’s surpassed this, donating 12 by the time their journey ended in Fernie. The extra two bikes were funded through donations as a result of people finding out about their campaign. Shortly after this, they received enough in donations to donate an additional three.

On Friday, September 13, two special needs youth at Isabella Dicken Elementary School (IDES) strapped into their new bikes, and joined their peers in the Terry Fox Run.

Deb and Jay watched proudly from the sidelines; smiling with almost as much joy as Liam and Lilyanna.

“This has been a passion of ours, cycling, and it’s great to be able to give back and see others enjoy it like we do,” said Jay.

“It’s just awesome to see the kids get on and ride right away, and get as much enjoyment as we do. It’s a big deal for us,” he added.

On a scale of one to five, with five being the most special needs, Freedom Concept Cycles specializes in fully custom, level-five bikes. Each build involves a specialist who creates the bike based off of the measurements of each user.

In Liam’s case, a youth with both Down syndrome and pulmonary hypertension, his bike has been custom made to hold his oxygen tank. His parents, Suzanne and Chad Blais explained that the gift came as a welcome surprise as they had been extensively researching alternatives to a stroller.

They said they were blown away at not only the service of the company, but also at the generosity of Deb and Jay.

“The fact that Deb and Jay are just willing to go and look for donations, I just feel like that’s so – it’s just so amazing,” said Suzanne.

“Now he (Liam) gets to join other activities that he couldn’t join before, like running club,” said Suzanne.

From running club to the Terry Fox Run, Liam now has the ability to independently participate in activities alongside his peers. The bike is adjustable, and will accommodate growth for about the next five years.

Both Liam and Lilyanna’s parents watched as their children rounded the track, followed by a joyous group of peers eager to check out their new bikes.

(Lilyanna Carlson gives Deb Zammit a high-five as she joins in the Terry Fox Run. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)

Corey and Christine Carlson, parents to Lilyanna, said the gift was a great blessing. Not only will it let her keep up with her five older sisters, they said it will also help build her self confidence and improve her fitness.

“She has five older sisters, so for her, she likes to do everything they do. Biking was one of the obstacles we had in our house,” said Christine.

For the past two years the couple has been looking into purchasing an adaptive bike for Lilyanna, but have been deterred due to the price which can climb well over $5000.

“So when this came up – yeah, a blessing. That’s all we can say,” Christine said.

Both couples admitted that there are several misconceptions surrounding children with Down syndrome that they hope to see improve.“I think that some of the misconceptions are that every child with Down syndrome is the same,” said Suzanne.

“They’re still their own person with their own abilities, with their own interests, personalities, they’re all different,” she continued. “Inclusion is so important. It’s great for us, it’s great for them.”

(Liam Blais rounds the track at Fernie Secondary School, participating in the annual Terry Fox Run. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)

In conversation with people his own age with Down syndrome, Liam’s father has discovered that the negative attitude towards people with Down syndrome has been significantly reduced over time, however, a few misconceptions remain.

Most everyone at IDES is familiar with Liam and Lilyanna. To be included in everything, Chad said, is good for Liam and Lilyanna, and also good for their peers.

They spoke to another misconception; that if Liam can’t do something at this point in his life, he’ll never learn how to do it.

“They’ll do it, but just on their own time,” said Suzanne. “Walking might take longer, but they’ll do it. Learning might take a little longer, but they’ll do it. I think that just because somebody does it a little differently, doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.”

When the adaptive bike was first introduced to Lilyanna on Monday, she didn’t know what to think about it. However in the few days that followed, her attitude changed from terrified to exuberant.

The biggest misconception in Christine’s mind is that people with Down syndrome can’t live productive lives, and that they are totally dependent on others. As Corey and Christine continue to challenge her with new tasks, they say Lilyanna continues to exceed their expectations. In addition to this, she’s a social butterfly.

“She’s so happy and social, she’s the most popular kid I know,” said Corey with a laugh.

“This is the next step for her I think,” added Christine. “Riding the bike and being that much closer to her friends.”

(Jay and Deb Zammit (left) pictured with Lilyanna Carleson and Liam Blais (front), their learning assistants Janet and Melissa, and (behind) Corey and Christine Carlson and Suzanne and Chad Blais. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)

Jay and Deb’s journey across Canada came to an abrupt halt six weeks ago when Deb broke her pelvis in Moncton, 7000 kilometres in. They were 1400 km short of their destination in St. John’s Newfoundland. Next year they plan on returning to finish their trip.

To read more about Jay and Deb’s journey across Canada, and their mission to help others, visit Jayanddebsjoyride.home.blog.

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