'This Is Therapy': Couple Fashions Tricycles for Children With Disabilities

PHOTO: Connie and Gordon Hankins have spent 15 years reconstructing bikes for 900 children with disabilities.
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Francesca "Frankie" Robertson will tell anyone who asks that she is the fastest girl on a tricycle.

She is certainly the happiest. As she barrels down the sidewalk after her older brothers, her blue eyes sparkle beneath the rabbit ears on her bright-pink bunny bicycle helmet. The 4-year-old's laughter echoes through the neighborhood. She is truly on a joy ride.

This may be a typical scene for most children, but for Frankie, it is miraculous. Just four years ago -- at birth -- she weighed only 1 pound, 10 ounces. She was so small, her father's wedding ring fit around her forearm.

"She has cerebral palsy," Frankie's mother, Dana Robertson, said. "She's quadriplegic so she didn't have the strength in her legs."

Years of therapy helped Frankie slowly gain function in her arms and legs. Five months ago, she had trouble running and playing with her older brothers. But everything changed once she got her new red tricycle.

"She glides through her movements, and I put all that on the bike," Dana Robertson said. "The bike has given that to her."

The bike was a gift from Connie and Gordon Hankins. The Naperville, Ill., retirees, who have grandchildren of their own, are on a mission. In their basement workshop, they transform tricycles, adding high seat backs with seat belts, custom handlebars and Velcro foot clips so that children with disabilities can ride.

"This is not just a toy," Gordon Hankins said. "It builds strength they need, and then they get that confidence [that] they can do other things."

Connie Hankins is a retired nurse; her husband, a retired telecommunications worker. Together, they now run the Therapy Oriented Tricycle TOT project. Since 1999, they've given away more than 900 free bikes to children nationwide.

Click Here to Donate to Therapy Oriented Tricycle TOT Project

Connie Hankins' file cabinet is filled with photos of every one of them. "I never get tired of it," she said of the smiles of children perched behind the handlebars.

Another cabinet is filled with thank you notes. She read some of them out loud.

"Thank you for giving our son Luke mobility," read one. "It brings tears to our eyes to see our daughter ride," read another.

After 50 years of marriage, the Hankinses' teamwork is evident. The pair can build and customize a tricycle in less that 15 minutes.

"We can build a bike without talking to each other," Connie Hankins said.

Each of the custom-built tricycles costs nearly $200, and the Hankinses rely on donations.

"We've exhausted our budget this year. We've extended it already," said Connie Hankins, "but I just can't tell them no."

The Hankinses continue to take requests, but they'll have to wait to fulfill them until donors come through.

The couple has spent thousands of their own dollars delivering the bikes to children across the country and the world. One family had the couple show them how to dismantle and re-assemble the bike before they shipped out to Afghanistan.

Noah Fontenot, 2, was the latest recipient of the couple's generosity. He also has cerebral palsy and requires braces to walk. He is wobbly on his feet, but moves freely strapped into his brand-new red tricycle.

His mother, sister and grandmother screamed, "Go, Noah!" as he took his first ride on a Hankins tricycle.

"He sees other kids riding their bikes, and he wants to get in and play along with them," said his mother, Debrena Clay. "This will be real good for him 'cause he'll fit right in."

Frankie's mother said the tricycle transformed her daughter's life. Speaking through tears, Dana Robertson called Gordon and Connie Hankins "angels" for what they'd given Frankie.

"Once she learns the confidence and believes in herself, she'll take that with her for a lifetime," she said.

When Frankie was asked where she wanted to go on her tricycle, she smiled wide and answered, "Everywhere."

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