Out Our Front Door’s Bike Camping for Everyone! program empowers people with special needs
The Chicagoland bike touring nonprofit has expanded its mission to include camping trips that are accessible to people with disabilities.
9:07 PM CST on January 29, 2024
Riding a bicycle can provide a wonderful sense of freedom. That's especially true for people with disabilities, who may experience a powerful feeling of liberation from adaptive cycling programs.
Out Our Front Door, a Chicagoland-based nonprofit "that leads bike adventures to immerse and educate in local history and nature," now in its ninth year, has been having success recently with its "Bike Camping for Everyone!" initiative. For the last three years they've led tours where folks with special needs get to enjoy the pleasures of cycling through scenic areas and sleeping under the stars.
OOFD executive director Glenn Schneider cofounded the group with a childhood friend. After traveling in Mexico and South America, they wanted to offer adventurous cycling experiences closer to home, with two-wheeled camping trips for adults, families, and youth.
Bradley Fisher serves on the nonprofit's board and volunteers as the program director for the adaptive bike camping series. By day he's a teacher and educational technology coordinator at CPS' Walt Disney Magnet School, where he's helping them get a new bike bus program up and running.
"Out Our Front Door is more and more seeking to integrate our adaptive needs programs into our adult programs," Fisher said. "And in the last three years we've had families with special needs kids on each of our four family camping adventures. We're always trying to find ways to become more inclusive."
In 2024 OOFD is shooting to include four or five special needs families into each of their five family overnight rides. And this year they're piloting the addition of adaptive riders into adult programs.
For example, OOFD is partnering with the University of Illinois at Chicago's Exercise Neuroscience Research Laboratory on an event for 10 to 12 adults with multiple sclerosis and their families. The group will ride from Bikes N' Roses bike education center in the Hermosa neighborhood to The 606 and back.
Also in 2024, there will be several OOFD overnight rides available to families with specials need. Some of them will go to Cook County-run campgrounds like Camp Dan Beard in Northbrook, Camp Sullivan in Oak Forest, and Camp Shabbona Woods in South Holland. "They're beautiful areas many people may not know are a part of the Chicago area," Fisher said. "They show the diversity and beauty of local habitats, that it's not just the flat city and cornfields."
According to Fisher, the types of conditions that OOFD adaptive cycling participants have include physical, developmental, and cognitive disabilities; cerebral palsy; and rare genetic syndromes. His daughter Lilia, 18, has the latter situation. "She's participated in quite a few Out Our Front Door rides and done bike touring trips with me. Six years ago we did an Adventure Cycling program in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Previously she was very afraid of everyday activities. To see this girl blossoming and enjoying the adventure was really wonderful for me and my family."
OOFD's riders with special needs use adaptive tandem bikes and modified trailer cycles. Fisher says the group's volunteers who work with them get extensive training on how to interact with people with disabilities to create an inclusive experience that makes them feel part of the cycling community.
In 2022 OOFD joined forces with the Skokie Park District, Emily Oaks Nature Center, and Maine-Niles Association of Special Recreation to create the Youth Unbound Camp for kids with and without special needs ages 12 to 17. The program offered a week long bike camp, culminating in a trip to Camp Dan Beard.
"One participant named Eli had complex medical conditions and used a feeding tube," Fisher said. "The tent camp with Out Our Front Door was the first time he spent the night away from his family."
In the evening his mother Becky visited the camp to help Eli with his extensive health regimen in a cabin, but he was still able to sleep under the stars in a tent. "We pair each rider (with special needs) one-to-one with a 'bike buddy,'" Fisher said. "Eli's bike buddy Joseph Brignon has extensive experience working with the Special Olympics. So Eli's mother knew that Eli would be in good hands."
"Youth Unbound Camp was the highlight of Eli's summer," Becky said in a statement. "He was so excited to be out riding bikes and hanging out at the nature center with his friends each day. This really opened our eyes to the possibility that bike riding for Eli could be so much more than just rides around our neighborhood."
As far as transporting camping equipment, OOFD carries some of it by bike when possible, but also borrows items from the campgrounds' gear libraries. Sullivan and Shabbona have libraries, as does the Chicago Park District's Northerly Island camping program in the South Loop, which is sponsored by Coleman. The adaptive cycling program has stayed there, as well as at the North Park Village Nature Center on the Far North Side.
Last year OOFD teamed up with KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) Chicago, which offers inclusive exercise and fitness programs. Coincidentally, the group's executive director Laura Fillenworth worked as Fisher's daughter Lilia's case manager at her elementary school eight years ago. "That shows you what a tight-knit community [the recreation for children with special needs scene] is. We have a wonderful relationship with KEEN."
There were 12 families involved with last year's inclusive cycling program. "We are often able to include the entire family," Fisher said. "My daughter Lilia and I had participated in a number of other recreation programs, like rock climbing and skiing. But we missed the opportunity for other family members to participate." With the OOFD events, Fisher's wife and daughter Chloe, 21, have been able to take part as well.
25 to 30 people total participated in the 2023 KEEN collaboration. The highlight of the program was biking from the South Shore Cultural Center up the Lakefront Trail to Northerly Island, camping with a bonfire, and then riding back the next day.
OOFD recently received a grant from from Laureus Sport for Good that will allow them to buy four more adaptive bicycles. They've worked with Cosmic Bikes, a shop in Portage Park, to obtain these bikes.
"One of these tandem bikes has a hand-cycle kit and an electrical assist for the 'stoker' [rider who sits in the back while the 'captain' steers]," Fisher said. OOFD uses Hase brand Pino Tour tandems, where the stoker sits in the front, not the back as they do on a typical tandem. "So this is the first bike we'll have for participants with spinal injuries or other conditions that limit the use of their legs. We're excited to incorporate this in 2024."
It's clear that OOFD's programs have been very meaningful for the families who take part. That's evidenced by this statement from a mother named Jeannette whose son Humberto camped with the group at Northerly Island last year year. "What an amazing event!" she wrote. "Thank you all so much for allowing us to experience camping outdoors, beautiful views, and getting to know other families! We’re so grateful to finally be part of a community that accepts and understands our son."
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In addition to editing Streetsblog Chicago, John writes about transportation and other topics for additional local publications. A Chicagoan since 1989, he enjoys exploring the city on foot, bike, bus, and 'L' train.
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