Young people with disabilities swim, bike, and run at Chicago summer camp

A woman is helping a boy wearing a helmet get situated on a bike adapted for children with disabilities.
At Kids Tri Camp, young people with physical disabilities get to participate in triathlon sports such as swimming, biking, and running. (Eileen Pomeroy / Chalkbeat)

Donna Barnes stood in the park next to 63rd Street Beach cheering for her grandson, Seraph. The 12-year-old was pedaling his bike toward the finish line of a triathlon course constructed for him and more than two dozen other children.  

It was a joyful moment for Seraph, who was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy and underwent foot surgery in February. 

Children with physical disabilities, like Seraph, are often excluded from traditional sports and summer activities, said Keri Serota, co-founder and executive director of Dare2Tri, a local nonprofit. Dare2Tri gives people with physical disabilities the opportunity to participate in triathlon sports such as swimming, biking, and running.

“Our goal is to remove those barriers so that these kids have the opportunity to attend camp and get to be a kid, and get to experience swimming, biking and running alongside their peers,” Serota said.

This week, the organization held a two-day Kids Tri Camp in Chicago. Children are provided the equipment they need to participate in triathlon sports, including racing wheelchairs and bikes with adaptive equipment, Serota said. The program costs $25, but scholarships are available for families who cannot afford the fee, she said. Organizers also provide transportation so everyone is able to attend. Throughout the year, they host weekly sports practices, other camps, and clinics.

Brian and Janie Schoenbeck traveled from their home in Sparta, Ill., more than 300 miles south of Chicago, so their daughter, Kaitlin, 8, could participate in camp. Kaitlin has distal spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic condition that affects her muscles and bones. 

This is only her second year at Tri Camp, but she and her parents have traveled to Chicago for other programs run by Dare2Tri because they haven’t found programs closer to them. Brian and Janie praised the organization for welcoming their family and helping them figure out how to get their daughter involved in more adaptive sports. 

“[Camp] brings out joy for Kaitlyn and it’s taught us a lot about activities we didn’t know were available for children in wheelchairs,” Brian said.

Kaitlin said her favorite camp activity is swimming. She was excited to compete in the final triathlon-style race on Wednesday. 

Participants started the course in Lake Michigan and swam ashore before running in the park. They were helped onto their bikes for the final leg of the course, and some cycled about two miles to Promontory Point and back. Dare2Tri guides accompanied the children along the course. At the finish line, a box of medals were ready to be handed out.

Participants start Wednesday’s triathlon-style race in Lake Michigan. (Eileen Pomeroy / Chalkbeat)

Laura Esposito said her son Danny, 7, enjoyed his first year at Tri Camp. Esposito has signed him up for other camps because of his independence, but this camp is helpful because she doesn’t have to worry about making sure the necessary accommodations are in place or that Danny will have to sit out of some activities. 

Danny has cerebral palsy that affects his legs, and he wasn’t able to ride a bike before attending the Dare2Tri program over a year ago, Esposito said. In addition to teaching him how to ride, the organization helped the family apply for grants to help buy a specialized bike with adaptive equipment, she said. Because he has the bike at home, he now rides around the neighborhood with his family.

Barnes was thrilled to see grandson Seraph swim for the first time. Now, she wants to take him to some local pools for more practice. Barnes also plans to apply for a grant that will help get him a bike with the adaptive equipment he used at camp, she said.

Although it’s been difficult for Barnes to find summer camps that would accommodate Seraph, she said she’s determined to enroll him into some camps next year, which he’s already excited about. But Tri Camp has been good for Seraph, Barnes said, smiling as she filmed her grandson as he crossed the finish line.

For more information about Dare2Tri’s camp and other programs, visit their website, dare2tri.org.

Eileen Pomeroy is a reporting intern for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Eileen at epomeroy@chalkbeat.org.

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