Sitting on a bike, the second grader wears a pink outfit and a determined look.
“Riding a bike makes me a brave girl,” Kiarra said. “Here. I’ll show you.”
The bike is stationary, but the feat is unique. It’s not the first time for Kiarra and most of her fellow students at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. They were recently introduced to the joy and freedom of pedaling.
The bikes are there thanks to Indianapolis-based Nine13sports, a nonprofit that uses technology to bring bike riding to students across Indiana, giving an exercise outlet to many who’ve never had the opportunity before.
Tom Hanley is the Founder and CEO of Nine13sports. He’s a four-time USA Cycling National Champion. He’s also a survivor. In 2010, Hanley was one of 15 people injured in a horrific commercial vehicle crash, which killed his best friend. Hanley suffered serious injuries, including broken vertebrae and a brain injury ending his career as a competitive cyclist.
Now he shares his love for cycling with students.
“The core value of Nine13sports is that the bicycle is the ultimate equalizer. It allows us to take kids of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and abilities and connect with them in a way that’s on a level playing field,” Hanley said.
In just five years, the Nine13sports phenomenon has exploded. At one point, Nine13 worked with close to 10,000 students at 40 schools in a year. By the end of 2017, the program expanded to 40,000 students at 160 schools.
On this day, Hanley explains how the bikes and a simulator work. “It’s going to put you in the middle of a big video game. So all you have to do is pedal across the screen.”
With teachers and other students urging them on, the competition kicks in. While progress toward the finish line is tracked on a screen, students receive updates and encouragement.
“This is the exact same equipment, same program, and same staff we bring in,” Hanley said. “There are only a few minor modifications we’ve had to make, with being more verbal with the students knowing they have different abilities and different levels of eyesight.
Jim Durst, the Superintendent for the school, takes it all in with pride.
“The reality of it is, with the appropriate accommodations and opportunities, our kids can pretty much do anything their sighted counterparts can,” Durst said.
A few feet away, Kim Borges watches in amazement. The Indiana Area Marketing Manager for Regions also works with Nine13sports at other schools. But today is different.
“The message around this program is independence, and about what’s possible,” Borges said. “These kids are absolutely amazing and inspiring. They love the program. They’re excited about the program. They ask each week when we are coming back.”
Hanley is in the middle of it all. He’s sharing his passion and opening a new world to the students. And the realization of it all is emotional.
“Seeing them achieving that, it moves me to tears every time,” Hanley said.
Leslie Carter-Prall, Regions’ Indiana Area President, loves the impact of the program.
“I’m so proud of Regions and our commitment to communities – in particular the ways we can impact lives,” Carter-Prall said. “This is just another example of us doing more.”
Durst sees the same sense of accomplishment.
“We’ve really been blessed with Regions Bank and their willingness to collaborate and make a difference in our school,” Durst said. “I think working and collaborating with Nine13, what we’ve witnessed is the difference it makes for kids. When you see those kids on the bicycle, it really is an equalizer.”
More to the Story: A Foundation for Indiana’s Visually Impaired
By raising funds, the Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation helps support students and create tomorrow’s leaders.
For nearly 25 years, the mission of the Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation has been to invest in children with visual impairments, and to serve as a philanthropic arm to the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which has served Indiana for more than 150 years.
The school has developed a unique expertise in educating blind and visually impaired children from infancy to age 22. Powered by Board members, parents, community volunteers and Executive Director Laura Alvarado, the foundation uses its resources to invest in the school and in programs that benefit the educational experience. Regions’ Indiana Area team supports both the foundation and school and partners with Nine13sports to bring students an interactive experience. Regions also supported the Foundation through Casino Night sponsorships and a donation of a bike and helmet for the Casino-themed auction basket.
One focus for the foundation is on a summer camp, Expanding Your Horizons, the state’s only full-week, overnight camp for visually impaired children ages 10-15. Expanding Your Horizons provides campers the chance to participate in a variety of activities that are adapted including archery, zip-lining and horseback riding. “Our kids gain confidence by experiencing these activities and, as a parent or volunteer, you witness them conquer their fears,” Alvarado said. The foundation also supports the annual Braille Challenge, held each February, and attracting students from across Indiana. Last year, five students from the Indiana Blind School competition advanced to the national competition and one took first place in his age division.
Meanwhile, family members during the Braille Challenge participate in workshops to help them understand what the students go through. Challenges for sighted family members include participating in a sport of a cooking challenge blindfolded. Family members are also taught how to leave an encouraging note written in Braille.
The Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation raises funds to acquire modern, assistive technology for students to help with their education and prepare them for college and careers. An example of available technology includes the expensive Braillenote Touch, a tablet with a Braille keyboard.