Brooke Marafino will take to her pink, 21-speed Schwinn later this month and set out on her fifth Ride for Roswell.
It will be the latest turn this 17-year-old from Cheektowaga has taken in an improbable life that doctors and teachers predicted would end up far differently than the road laid out for her now.
She is not a child cancer survivor, but knows the challenges of living an atypical life.
Brooke was born three months prematurely, at 1½ pounds. Her parents were told she would never ride a bike, would struggle through school and never go to college.
“They had to take her to save me,” said her mother, Karen Marafino. “She was born in July and didn’t get to meet her cousins until Christmas.”
The premature delivery led to a series of complications that taxed Brooke’s coordination and spawned other learning and physical challenges – including the ability to ride a bike.
“Staying up on the bike was the hardest part,” she said. “When I was younger, I didn’t have very good balance and I still don’t to this day. I fall up and down stairs at school, and even at home. I bump into walls. Very uncoordinated.”
“But you ride like a champ now,” her mother beamed.
As they shared their story, a box of Kleenex came out onto the livingroom coffee table. The father, Scott, was out helping with a school athletic event; younger sister, Megan, 15, was downstairs in the family’s home off Walden Avenue, studying with a friend.
Mother and daughter want other families with children who have Down syndrome, autism or other special needs – who may have been told those kids might never ride a bike – know that there happens to be a camp starting at the end of this month that might well change that outlook.
The $175 cost may be one of the best investments a family will make for such a child, said Karen Marafino, who works for Univera Healthcare, which helps underwrite some of the camp costs, and now counts herself among the volunteers who helps bring it off each summer.
She found out about the iCan Bike Camp online through the Down Syndrome Parents Group of Western New York in 2010, shortly before Brooke’s 13th birthday.
“It’s such an emotional story for me because it changed everything,” Karen Marafino said. “I was always told, She won’t be able to do that, don’t push her. Just accept whatever she wants to do. That’ll be good enough.
“Having her learn to ride and watching her realize that she can do anything was incredible. Sometimes it might be a different way that she learns or it might take her a little longer, but it doesn’t mean she can’t do it. It’s really cool. I’m so proud of her.”
This year’s camp will start June 29 – two days after the Ride for Roswell – and run through July 3 at Clarence High School. To register a child at least age 8, visit icanshine.org or call 817-7204.
The goal of the camp is “to teach individuals with disabilities to ride a conventional two-wheel bicycle and become lifelong independent riders. This achievement, in turn, creates a gateway of opportunity, helping them gain assurance and self-reliance in many other aspects of their lives,” according to iCan Shine, a national nonprofit that devised it.
Brooke’s road to the camp was arduous. She watched her younger sister learn to bike long before she could do so herself. By the time the camp rolled around, she’d tried and tried, but failed – despite the best efforts of her parents to help.