Therapy Oriented Tricycle helps physically challenged kids get active

Telecom Pioneers Gordon and Connie Hankins lead efforts to give custom trikes to kids in need

For those of us who can walk or run or ride a bicycle, it’s easy to take those things for granted. But for a child with mobility impairments, the smallest step can be an unimaginable accomplishment.

Active children love toys like tricycles that help build motor skills and muscle strength, and let them get their ya-ya’s out. Little kids with conditions that limit physical ability – like spina bifida, cerebral palsy and brain abnormalities – can’t enjoy these simple toys.

The problem is, standard factory-order designs just don’t work for physically challenged kids who might not be able to sit up on their own, or keep their feet on the pedals.

That’s why Therapy Oriented Tricycle (TOT), a Pioneers project, exists. TOT purchases and receives stock tricycles, and modifies them with special aftermarket parts like supportive seat backs with seat buckles and modified pedals with Velcro straps. Started in 1986 by Lou Wegerer, a retiree from the Western Electric Montgomery Works in Montgomery, Illinois, TOT serves children between 1½ and 7 years old.

TOT has been led by led by co-chairs Gordon and Connie Hankins since 1996. Gordon is retired from a career with Lucent Technologies, and Connie is a former surgical nurse who also worked with the Red Cross in South Korea, when the couple lived there.

When TOT started, Lucent technologies provided space for build days; these days, Gordon and Connie build trikes and host build days in their basement. Connie and Gordon manage everything from fundraising and accepting donations, to purchasing and modifying the trikes, to handling the paperwork necessary to deliver customized trikes.

Research and therapy outcomes document that mobility enhances a child’s ability to learn and interact with others, and increases the possibility of leading an active and fulfilling life. In fact, TOT trikes do much more than help special needs kids improve their strength and enhance their physical therapies. These children experience the autonomy of exploring, playing, and interacting with the world and other kids under their own power.

Connie says the trikes sometimes seem to have wonder-working powers. Children who hadn't walked learn to walk. A girl with a hand-operated trike was able to join a T-ball team and pedal around the bases.

"There are other [adapted] tricycles out there, but they can cost as much as $3,000, which is out of reach for a lot of families," says Connie. TOT can purchase an unmodified tricycle for about $65; the custom parts average around $100 for each TOT trike.

TOT receives funding through Pioneers grants, individual donors, Pioneers chapters, and related social organizations like the Bell Labs Luncheon Group. The lion’s share of grant money and donations goes toward purchasing tricycles and parts.

Donations from the families of recipients are accepted, but not required. The Hankins’ ask only that parents have a therapist write a recommendation before TOT agrees to give a child a trike. "We want to make sure the child is fitted properly,” says Connie. A one-page “Therapist Letter of Recommendation Form” can be found at the bottom of this article.

Partners outside the Pioneers network provide critical support. For example, while TOT often purchases unmodified tricycles from Radio Flyer, the company also donates time and equipment to TOT. At a recent “build day”, Radio Flyer employees joined Gordon and Connie at their home, spending the day modifying 10 tricycles donated from the factory, along with 15 tricycles the Hankins’ supplied.

A few years ago, product design and engineering firm DiMonte Group teamed up with Radio Flyer and TOT to improve the quality of the modifications and reduce the cost of a finished TOT trike. DiMonte sponsored a program for engineering students at a local school to participate in real-world design, production, and manufacturing of the TOT trike. Now, a redesigned torso-support solution provides greater safety, support, ease of adjustment and durability. DiMonte engineers also created an innovative one-piece, sand-cast aluminum pedal to replace a cumbersome, hand-made pedal attachment. DiMonte introduced TOT to some of the company’s vendor partners, which helps TOT source custom components directly, further reducing the cost of modified trikes.

In 2017, TOT was able to help nearly 60 children with specially modified tricycles. Since the Hankins’ took over the TOT Project in 1996, TOT has donated over 1,000 modified tricycles to physically challenged children across the US.

“Pioneers has changed a lot since TOT was founded. One thing that hasn’t changed is people wanting to help children with special needs,” says Fred Salomon, treasurer for Pioneers Chapter 135. Connie sums it up: “Seeing the joy these parents and their children have is all the reward we need.”

Find out more about Therapy Oriented Tricycle (TOT) or make a donation: call 630-355-7211 (home) or 630-841-4542 (cell); email or 

Story by Dena Zocher
Therapist Letter for Therapy Oriented Tricycle