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Special tricycles help children in need

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NAPERVILLE, Ill. — For Francessca "Frankie" Robertson, riding a bicycle was an unlikely dream — let alone being able to pedal fast enough to keep up with her older brothers.

But both of those dreams have come true for the 4-year-old quadriplegic with cerebral palsy thanks to the handiwork of Connie and Gordon Hankins.

From their Naperville home, the Hankinses customize nearly 100 tricycles a year for children with such disabilities as cerebral palsy and spina bifida. On many tricycles, upright handlebars have been substituted for factory-installed. Pedals have been built up with blocks so children can reach them, and straps hold their feet in place. Bucket seats are fitted with straps, and a wide rear axle ensures they won't fall off.

Frankie was introduced to the modified tricycle earlier this spring during a therapy session at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton.

"She would want to ride it all through physical therapy and all over Marianjoy," says her mother, Dana Robertson of Hanover Park. "So the therapist connected us with the Hankinses, and Frankie was quickly approved for her very own bike."

Dana said she remembers taking Frankie to pick up her red and white Roadmaster tricycle that has since been adorned with pink streamers and a rhinestone bell.

"Gordon put her on, and she wouldn't get off. She wanted to stay on it in the car," Robertson said. "I had to compromise and seat-belt the bike into the car next to her for the ride home."

Midori Elias, 5, of Glendale Heights also had to be pried away from her new tricycle before a recent surgery to straighten her legs.

"The doctor said she can ride again in two weeks, and she is counting the days," said Midori's mother, Janet Elias. "She loves to ride, ride, ride because it makes her feel like the other kids."

Reactions like that keep the Hankinses going.

"The driving force is our faith because we want to pass God's love on to those that need it," Connie Hankins said. "You see these children and the joy it brings them. That is our blessing."

Connie Hankins got involved with the tricycle program 14 years ago. She and Gordon, a retired Lucent Technologies employee, joined the West Suburban Pioneer Club of Telecom Pioneers, a social and service group for current and retired employees of the telecommunications industry.

The club buys the tricycles in three sizes — 10-, 12- and 16-inch frames — and the Hankinses order the special parts. They have lost the supplier of the 16-inch frames, however, and fear they may no longer be able to supply that size tricycle to children in need.

"They'll be gone by the end of this year unless we find a supplier," Connie said.

The trikes with the adaptive parts cost about $200 apiece, Donations are accepted from recipients but not required.

"There are other (adapted) tricycles out there, but they're going cost as much as $3,000," Connie Hankins said. "That's too much for many families."

Word about the project has continued to spread through the dozen or so hospitals the Hankinses work with.

"Everyone should know about Connie and Gordon because this gives (Frankie) the opportunity to be with other kids and builds her confidence," Dana said. "Her tricycle also gives her the strength to keep up with her brothers and builds muscles at the same time."

The Hankinses ask only that parents have a therapist write a recommendation before they agree to give a child a trike.

"We want to make sure the child is fitted properly. Otherwise we could do more harm than good," Connie said.

While it takes only about a 45 minutes to modify a tricycle, the time spent on paperwork and phone calls is substantial for two people.

The Hankinses deliver the tricycles or have the recipients come to their home so they can make any further modifications that may be necessary. Such volunteer work, however is not new to the couple. Connie, a former surgical nurse at Edward Hospital in Naperville, has delivered meals to seniors, visited the elderly, driven those in need of transportation and worked with the Red Cross in South Korea when the couple lived there for three years.

But their mission, called the Therapy Oriented Tricycle (TOT) project, is special to the Hankinses, who have two adult daughters and two grandsons who have helped test the trikes over the years.

Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com