Sussex athlete using bikes to ‘bridge the gap’ with special needs kids

Harrison Barnes, of Bridgeville, back row, second from right, served as a mentor and coach in the first Special Olympics Unified BMX Race at the Summer X Games in Minneapolis last week. (Submitted photos)

BRIDGEVILLE — He was hooked almost immediately.

Before he even got on a bike, Harrison Barnes knew BMX racing was something he wanted to be doing.

“The first time I ever went to a BMX track I was 12,” he said. “I just watched the first night and then I went back home, and I was like, ‘Alright, this is definitely going to be my thing.’ I knew right from the beginning of this, there was just something about it that was definitely for me.”

Diagnosed with Sensory Processing Dysfunction and Asperger’s Syndrome at a young age, Mr. Barnes was considered nonverbal until the age of 4.

“We weren’t sure what to expect when he was little,” his mother, Suzanne Farris, said. “Predictions were made for him, and they told us not to expect him to go to college, and they just weren’t really sure he was ever going to be fully verbal.”

Just a few weeks after he first started riding bikes, Ms. Farris says she had already noticed a difference in Mr. Barnes. So did his teachers.

“After his first time out on a BMX track riding, he went back to school and his teachers called me a couple weeks later and said, ‘I don’t know what you’ve changed, but there’s been a drastic difference in Harrison,’” she said.

“And that’s when we kind of realized this might be more than just a bike, and that there might be a way to expand this into something for other kids.”

Around 2015, Mr. Barnes, a Bridgeville native, realized he wanted to help other kids get the same impact out of bikes, so he launched GearUp.

“That’s when I first thought, ‘OK, this is actually really helping me, and I shouldn’t be the only one getting this experience,’” he said.

“There are so many other kids out there, in situations similar to mine, that could really use something like this. So, why be selfish and keep it all to myself?”

Mr. Barnes had the opportunity to recently meet tennis great Billie Jean King when he was awarded a $10,000 scholarship for being one of the four recipients of the inaugural Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award.

GearUp is a nonprofit foundation that helps kids, especially those with special needs, get access to bikes, learn to ride safely, get access to safe riding spaces and even work with mentors.

Through GearUp, Mr. Barnes refurbishes and gives away used bikes.

“For whatever reason, it was BMX for me. Sports, for a lot of people with special needs, kind of bridges those gaps and overcome those certain special disabilities they have — whether it be in school or in social settings,” said Mr. Barnes. “Sports, a lot of times, is just one of those magic things that changed a lot of things for kids like me.”

Since the nonprofit launched, the foundation has directly impacted over 4,500 kids, which includes every state in the country and in three different countries.

“When he said he wanted to do this a few years ago, I would’ve never thought it would grow like this,” said Ms. Farris. “But I love to be able to just let him run with it. It’s been really cool to just facilitate him doing all these things.”

“I still don’t expect it to reach as many people as it does,” joked Mr. Barnes. “It’s still very mind-boggling to realize, when you look at the numbers, it’s like, ‘Alright, well what are the real numbers?’ It’s very hard to believe where we’re at. I’m very grateful and it’s very humbling.”

Currently, GearUp is running its second Summer Bike Challenge, which is open to anyone in the world.

Kids register and ride their bike throughout the summer, recording every time they ride and send it in to GearUp. At the end of the summer, GearUp draws for prizes based on how many hours the kids have recorded.

In last summer’s challenge, approximately 100 kids registered and clocked an estimated combined 1,000 hours.

Having already surpassed the 100-youth mark in this year’s challenge, Mr. Barnes set the lofty goal of 10,000 hours for this summer.

The foundation has had such an impact that he attended the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles last month after becoming one of just four recipients of the inaugural Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award.

He was presented a $10,000 scholarship at the ESPN Humanitarian Awards the night prior to the ESPY Awards and was then invited to attend the ESPYs the following night, where he was recognized for his work.

“It was a bucket list item, for sure,” Mr. Barnes said. “It’s just so crazy to be out there with all those superstars in the world of sports, and to be in their world for even a couple of days and be recognized as someone who is making a difference in the world of sports is incredible.”

Just a few weeks after the ESPYs in L.A. Mr. Barnes found himself in Minneapolis coaching and mentoring participants at the first Special Olympics Unified BMX Race at the Summer X Games.

Harrison Barnes attended the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles last month after becoming one of just four recipients of the inaugural Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award.

He had the opportunity to speak with some of his BMX heroes during the week.

“Talking to some of these guys who I have looked up to since I was 9 or 10 years old, for example Kyle Baldock, has just been crazy,” he said. “We had a long conversation about what it is I’m doing and to even be in the same room or the same conversation as people like him is a dream come true.”

Against doctors’ previous predictions, Mr. Barnes graduated from Woodbridge High School this past spring.

He’ll be attending Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina on a cycling scholarship.

“He’s leaving me in a couple of weeks and he’s going off to college,” said Ms. Farris. “I try to be sad about it, because I’m going to miss him. I really try to be sad, and then I think for a minute — we never thought this would happen.

“This is what he wanted. He wanted to go off to college and he wanted to go away and do all those things that teenagers want to do.”

Mr. Barnes’ longterm goal is to graduate college and become an occupational therapist. While still running GearUp, of course.

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