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Someone You Should Know: Boy's long journey to learn to ride a bike

By Doug Emblidge, 13WHAM ABC

Read full story and watch video at 13WHAM.

Rochester, N.Y. - Eight-thousand, one-hundred-seventy-nine miles: That's how far 11-year-old Tholu Zulu traveled from Pretoria, South Africa, to Rochester, so he could learn to ride a bike. And that alone makes him Someone You Should Know.

"As a dad, I've tried. I bought him a bike," says Tholu's father, Thobile Zulu. "And at first I thought, it can't be that difficult for him to learn to ride."

But, as the young dad would quickly learn, it can be difficult. And it can be especially hard for children with autism, like Tholu, and others with disabilities.

It takes a while before the fear on a face yields to a smile.

That's why the iCan Bike Camp is a destination for so many children with autism and their parents. AutismUp has run the week-long camp at Rochester Institute of Technology for 11 years now. Four-hundred people have taken part, and the success rate is almost 100 percent.

Bella Ponticello, a 19-year-old Nazareth College sophomore, is part of the army of up to 120 volunteers who help make that possible.

She remembers when she first learned to ride a bike.

"It's hard," Ponticello recalls. "I can't even imagine the fear going into it. But that's why we're here. We try to eliminate that fear. We try to motivate them. And toward the end of the week, we get the riders up on two wheels."

Thobile Zulu found out about the camp via a search on the internet and booked flights for himself, his wife, son, and mother-in-law. "In our community, most of the kids around there, they ride bikes," said Zulu. "So he's always left out in terms of integrating with the other kids. So, I think that will be a plus for him, to be able to do what the other kids do."

The iCan Bike Camp uses certified instructors who come to town with a variety of adaptive equipment. Along with those volunteer spotters, the expert teachers help the riders gain the skills needed to ride on their own.

According to AutismUp, a local organization started mostly by moms who have children on the autism spectrum, learning to ride a bike changes the lives of children and teens by building their self-confidence, providing opportunities for inclusive recreation, and encouraging a lifetime of fun and exercise.

While here, the Zulus have learned how Rochester became a leader in awareness, services and support for people with autism and their families.

"We've been invited for dinner for Friday," said Thobile. "So I think we've got friends. So this is more like another home."

Thobile Zulu hopes to see progress at home, and he knows it's more likely to happen if parents advocate for it.

As for Tholu, he's on track to be riding on two wheels by the end of camp on Friday. And that long trip he made with his family could be just the beginning of a lifelong journey - some of it on the bike that awaits him at home.

AutismUp is planning its next big event, Kite Flite. The fundraising challenge leading up to a festival on August 18 supports many of the group's efforts, including iCan Bike Camp. For more information click here.


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