Once a week, a gazebo nestled among Tamiami Park’s ubiquitous baseball fields becomes a garage for recreational therapy students and their professor.
It’s where they tinker, swap out parts and manually adjust settings on long, squat futuristic-looking contraptions that are used by people with disabilities to bike.
These students are learning what it’s like to help people with disabilities accomplish something they thought was impossible, while getting first-hand experience in their future career.
“A lot of employers want their recreational therapy providers to facilitate adapted sports,” said Tania Santiago Perez, the recreational therapy instructor who developed a partnership with Miami-Dade County’s Parks, Recreation, and Open Spaces Department to get the hand cycling program off the ground.
“They will need to know how to do this for the jobs available today at Veterans Affairs Hospitals and at municipal parks and recreation departments,” she added.
For Marcos Rodriguez, recreational therapy represents more than just a job. Since his aunt developed a rare illness that left her paralyzed, it’s become a calling. So as a first-time rider was eased into his hand cycle, Rodriguez volunteered to help the young man steer around the park’s half-mile loop.
After three trips around the baseball diamonds, Rodriguez was winded.
“I feel great,” Rodriguez said, gulping in air. “Today, this is a learning experience for me, but I already feel rewarded by helping someone in need. Seeing him smile put a smile on my face as well.”
Enjoying a fun day outdoors is something Rodriguez says people who are recovering from injuries or who have disabilities should never do without.
Nancy Antoine, a senior majoring in computer science, hopes that participating in the hand cycling sessions will improve her mobility. Pedaling with her hands exercises a lot of the same muscles in her arms and shoulders that keep her steady on a walker.
“The walker does make me tired and I have to take breaks occasionally,” said Antoine, who has cerebral palsy. “This exercise will help me. I need to get around and I won’t let anything stop me.”
It takes four people to safely guide Antoine from her walker to the hand cycle, which sits inches from the ground. Recreation therapy students help adjust her seat and the straps and struts that keep her legs snug. Another person helps adjust the positioning of the hand cranks and gears and, for the moment, Antoine is ready to ride off on the trail.
After traveling a few yards, however, it becomes clear that Antoine is struggling to turn the bike’s large front tire. As the wheel turns, it rubs her calves, slows the bicycle and limits how far she can turn. It takes a few minutes more to diagnose the problem, and by trial-and-error, adjust the positioning of her legs and the straps that hold her in place so turning the bike becomes a smooth, fluid motion.
Before long, she’s underway again – for good this time – safely making the turn onto the paved trail and accelerating away into the warm breeze. After taking a few laps around the ball fields Antoine headed back to the gazebo.
“I’m tired, but it’s a good tired,” Antoine said. “I had a lot of fun today. I’m looking forward to riding more and becoming an expert.”
The program is currently on hiatus, but will resume in the fall. For more information, call 305-348-3220 or 305-222-2128.