Milestones to Miracles

A volunteer helps a rider get up on two wheels for the first time. Once a participant can ride on their own, they can bring in their own bike to use at the program.

A volunteer helps a rider get up on two wheels for the first time. Once a participant can ride on their own, they can bring in their own bike to use at the program.

Sounds of cheering and clapping resonate from the New Harvest Church warehouse. Karen Ray watches as a young woman does laps around the floor on a two-wheel bicycle. The tears in Ray’s eye catch the light coming in from the open warehouse door. She watches with awe and admiration as this girl achieves something that was seemingly impossible just days before.

“This is the first time she’s done that this week,” Ray said. “She doesn’t even need help anymore.”

Learning to ride a bike is an accomplishment most children experience early on in life. When the participants of iCan Bike summer camp learn to ride a bike, it’s more of a miracle than a milestone.

“Without this program, there’s little to no possibility these people would ever learn to do something like this,” Ray said. “It’s a huge deal to them and to us.”

Karen Ray, director of iCan Bike Fresno-Clovis and mother of a disabled child, helped bring this program to the Valley three years ago. The mission of the iCan Bike program is to teach a disabled person how to ride a bike on their own after five days. 15-year-old Aaron Ray, was born with down syndrome and attended the Pasadena iCan Bike program four years ago.

“We just thought it was the most perfect thing for our son,” Ray said. “Not only Aaron, but for all kids with any kind of disability.”

After receiving the necessary funds, iCan Bike partnered with Central Valley Cycling Charitable Association. This organization raises money for charity by training cyclers for a 100-mile bike ride.

An iCan Bike participant successfully laps the warehouse on his bike. These bikes are provided with special training equipment that help disabled chidlren learn easier.

An iCan Bike participant successfully laps the warehouse on his bike. These bikes are provided with special training equipment that help disabled chidlren learn easier.

“Aaron and his dad Dan did 100 miles on a tandem bike together,” Ray said. “He was the only disabled person in that race and he finished. Some people without disabilities couldn’t even finish.”

Aaron Ray stands on the outside of the biking arena, cheering on those riding and high-fiving volunteers.

“When they finished that race I just broke down in tears,” Ray said. “He used to not even be able to get on a bike, let alone bike 100 miles.”

Dan Ray also joins Karen, remembering the training that went into biking 100 miles together.

“There were some days where we would spend four to five hours together just riding together,” Dan Ray said. “It was really hard but we got to spend so much quality time together.”

iCan Bike welcomes adults, which led them to also partner with The Arc of Fresno. The Arc of Fresno runs 12 different programs in the area specifically for disabled adults.

“This isn’t two separate communities, we are all in this together,” said Jamie Marrash, director of programs at The Arc of Fresno and coordinator at iCan Bike.

The Arc helps adults continue biking long after the program ends.

“We get to see some people ride their bike now instead of take the handicapped bus,” Marrash said.

19-year-old Savanna Emanuel, an adult iCan Bike participant, was able to ride a two-wheel bike on her own Wednesday.

“It’s important for me to learn how to be independent,” Emanuel said. “I want to be able to do stuff on my own too.”

“Savanna is autistic,” Ray said. “She went online and enrolled herself in camp. No one else made her be here, she chose to be here.”

iCan Bike has roughly 140 volunteers this summer. Tom Knott, 22, finds volunteer work rewarding.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this,” Knott said. “It’s so incredibly rewarding, not just for the people learning to bike but for me. My rider Matthew has been so much fun to work with.”

Matthew rides by and smiles at those around him. People cheer him on and encourage him to keep riding.

“He is so much more confident,” Knott said.

Thanks to many local partnerships and donations, iCan Bike is able to run for two weeks. The program will finish this week at New Harvest Church and continue next week at Fresno City College.

“Having Aaron changed our life, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Dan Ray said, as Aaron high-fived a rider getting off their bike. “We are different and better people because of him. iCan Bike helps families like us everywhere.”

Savanna Emanuel, 19, gets ready to ride her two-wheeler outside on her own. Her volunteer, Callan, offers some tips before she rides.

Savanna Emanuel, 19, gets ready to ride her two-wheeler outside on her own. Her volunteer, Callan, offers some tips before she rides.

 

 

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The Seniors of Fresno

 

 

Sophia Brown and her sister Pam both attend Senior Hot Meals. In a heated game of dominoes, Sophia laughs at a joke made by her opponent.

Sophia Brown and her sister Pam both attend Senior Hot Meals. In a heated game of dominoes, Sophia laughs at a joke made by her opponent.

Coming in from water aerobics, Gladys Avakian and a group of other towel-wrapped seniors find an open seat at one of the rectangular folding tables. The tables and chairs decorating the gym floor create a social grid in which each person has a place. People at the surrounding tables create a soft ambiance with their voices, chatting with their neighbors. As the tables fill up with people returning from the pool, everyone waits excitedly for lunch to be served. Not a single person sits alone, as tables pull up extra chairs for friends who are just getting back. Those who participated in aerobics are asked how class went, and those who didn’t are asked how their mornings are going so far. As the metal kitchen window opens up to reveal the day’s meals, Avakian lights up, hair still slightly damp from aerobics.

“The fettuccini alfredo is the best in the world,” Avakian said. “I could eat everyone’s plate.”

Weekday mornings from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the Mosqueda gymansium becomes much more than a recreational center and somewhere to get a good meal. It becomes a community for a group of seniors. It is a place where the elderly find a new outlet to grow socially while maintaining physical and mental well-being.

“Just because we’re old doesn’t mean we don’t need our friends,” said Pam Brown, volunteer water aerobics instructor and fellow senior.

The Senior Hot Meals program started in the early ‘80s and has served roughly 38,000 meals to seniors since, according to community recreation supervisor Levi Winebrenner.

“For a lot of these seniors it’s the only nutritious and warm meal they get all day,” Winebrenner said. “On any given day, we’ll serve between 200 and 250 seniors a hot meal.”

Partnered with the Equal Opportunity Commission, Senior Hot Meals recieves a certain number of prepared meals every day, which are distributed to the program’s six sites around town.

“All the volunteers are seniors themselves,” Winebrenner said. “The people who help in the kitchen and teach exercise classes are seniors who decided to step up and offer their assistance.”

The meals, however, are just a small role in why this program is so special.

“Today, we had around 20 people in the pool which is a lot,” Brown said of the morning exercise. “They never want to get out.”

The program offers water aerobics twice a week.

Brown sees the value in this type of program, as well as the exercise and socialization participants experience while attending.

“Not only is the exercise good for our bodies, but we need it for our mental health too,” Brown said. “It gives so many people here a social circle and a place to call home outside their house.”
Louise Graham, another volunteer exercise instructor, remembers her first days at Senior Hot Meals.

“I remember coming here and I didn’t know a soul,” Graham said. “But there were always people who would come up and talk to me, and make me feel comfortable. That’s why I grew to love everyone so much.”

Graham came to Senior Hot Meals after working in the district for 30 years.

“When my husband passed, I needed to find something to do,” Graham said. “I never thought I’d find something like this.”

When they're not exercising, the seniors can be found playing games with each other. Louise Graham, Manuel Balbez and Sophia Brown continue a game of dominoes, in which Louise comes out the winner.

When they’re not exercising, the seniors can be found playing games with each other. Louise Graham, Manuel Balbez and Sophia Brown continue a game of dominoes, in which Louise comes out the winner.

At each of the tables, seniors are engaged in activites as well as each other. Brown offers her leftover salad to her neighbor, who in exchange offers back something off her plate.

“It’s just one big fellowship,” said Tamara Baker, regular attendant of the senior program at Mosqueda community center. “We all bring something to share and we learn so much from each other.”

Throughout the morning, seniors can choose to participate in the daily exercise or stay in and socialize. Frank and Selma Guerra, married 64 years, have been attending the program for 11 years.

“We come to gossip,” Frank said.

Selma hits his arm and rolls her eyes.

“Our friends are a nice perk too,” Selma said.

The number of activities available has fluctuated throughout the years. Now, every day has one primary physical activity. There is a yoga class monday, water aerobics Tuesdays and Thursdays, line dancing on Wednesdays and bingo is played on Fridays.

“I love doing the water aerobics,” said Avakian, regular aerobics participant.

For many of these people, leaving the community center once the program is over means returning to an empty house.

“There’s nothing quite like having to eat a meal alone at home,” Brown said. “I’m really grateful something like this exists. The bond we all have with each other is unlike anything else.”

Senior Hot Meals is also partnered with the Fresno Madera Agency on Aging, which helps inform coordinators what the best strategies are for these types of programs.

“It’s so important to get these people up and moving out of their house,” Winebrenner said. “At their age, their social circles are shrinking and it can lead them to sit at home all the time.”

With the funding help of Agency on Aging and the City of Fresno, the Senior Hot Meals program is one benefitting hundreds of people daily. Manuel Balbez attended his very first day of the program this Thursday.

“He fits right in,” Brown said.

“I walked in and immediately thought, ‘hey, I like this place’,” Balbez said.

Balbez is taught by the members of his table how to play dominoes, a game that Graham happily wins that day.

“Manuel, I always win this game,” Graham said. “You just better get used to it.”

As the program comes to an end that day, people make their way to the door. No one leaves without a resounding farewell from the entire group.

“Are you trying to leave without saying goodbye?” Brown said to a woman leaving the gymansium.

The tables and chairs are left empty, with just a few left over helping clean up.

“Being a part of this program is the greatest thing in the world,” Brown said. “There’s some really, really great people who live here.”

Gladys Avakian happily munches on her meal that day. Throughout the summer, the seniors can opt out of the hot meal and have a salad instead.

Gladys Avakian happily munches on her meal that day. Throughout the summer, the seniors can opt out of the hot meal and have a salad instead.