The Portland Wheelers volunteers were still unloading gear from a bicycle trailer at Birchwoods at Canco when Paul Cardone showed up, ready to ride.

The 79-year-old had been reminding the activities director at the assisted living facility in Portland for three days that his ride was Monday morning. He was looking forward to it and there was no way he was going to be late.

“It’s a nice day for a ride,” Cardone said in the minutes before volunteers helped him strap on a helmet.

The bike rides Cardone and other residents at Birchwoods look forward to come courtesy of the Portland Wheelers, a nonprofit that for five years has been providing rides for people who cannot ride a bike themselves. The program makes it possible for people living with disability or dementia to get outside in a way they may not have experienced in years or at all, said Doug Malcolm, executive director of the Portland-based organization.

Kristin Huber, a volunteer with Portland Wheelers, fastens the chin strap of a helmet on Paul Cardone before they go for a bicycle ride last week. Cardone is a resident of the Birchwood at Canco assisted living facility in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

This year, Portland Wheelers’ 55 volunteer pilots expect to give 1,100 rides to 500 people.

The organization’s bikes – or “trikes” as the volunteers call them – are tandem tricycles with electric-assist pedaling that are made in the Netherlands. The trike, which costs about $8,500, is designed to allow a stand-alone wheelchair to release from the rear half of the bicycle frame, making it easier for riders to transition onto the seat. Riders wear a four-point chest harness and place their feet on a foot rest during the ride.

Portland Wheelers works with 20 facilities in the Portland area to provide regular rides, while also offering rides that leave from Ocean Gateway to people who don’t live in a facility. Most of the rides travel along the Eastern Prom or Back Cove trails.

Malcolm started Portland Wheelers in 2015 after seeing a similar program when he was visiting his mother on Cape Cod. He had been working as a registered nurse at a rehabilitation hospital and was immediately interested in the opportunities the trikes would give people dealing with a disability or mobility issue.

“I could see from a distance they were having a ball,” he said. “I was working with brain injuries and people dealing with the challenges of not being able to get around. I thought it would be a great way to get people outdoors who can’t ride a bike.”

Back in Maine, Malcolm launched an Indiegogo campaign that raised $10,000, enough to buy the organization’s first trike. They were “off to the races” as soon as volunteers were trained, he said. The first year, volunteer pilots – those pedaling the trike – gave 300 rides to 111 people.

“It’s grown like crazy ever since,” Malcolm said.

In 2018, Portland Wheelers reported total revenue of just over $135,000, including $116,000 from donations and grants and $12,600 in program service fees. The organization spent $122,000 that fiscal year, according to tax filings.

Portland Wheelers is looking to double the size of its fleet next year, but Malcolm said fundraising has become a bit more challenging because grants are increasingly competitive. Malcolm would like to buy two new trikes, plus a “trishaw” bike with a bench seat that can hold two riders. The trishaw costs about $10,000.

“We’re looking for creative ways to raise the money,” Malcolm said.

The additional trikes would allow the Portland Wheelers to give more rides to more people, Malcolm said. In doing so, more people could benefit from the opportunity to get outside for a therapeutic ride.

“On the surface it seems like a simple cheap thrill, but we can tell you hundreds of stories of improvements in the (riders’) lives. It’s not just an immediate rush of good feelings,” Malcolm said. “It’s such a reversal for folks who are in a wheelchair. People are literally looking down on them and they feel like they don’t fit in or are being judged. Here, they’re out in the field with us and the response is affirmation. They get really positive attention. Sometimes they’re in tears because they’re overjoyed.”

The rides help many people with depression, Malcolm said. In 2013, Alberta Health Services in Canada documented that therapeutic bike riding dramatically reduced depression levels. The study showed a 91 percent decrease in depressive symptoms and 82 percent of seniors reported they slept better.

Donna Patrick, the activities director at Birchwoods at Canco, said those benefits are obvious in people like Cardone, who has few opportunities to leave the assisted living facility.

“He comes back happy and excited and asking to go again,” she said. “This gives (our residents) the freedom of movement they don’t normally have. It brings back memories of their childhoods.”

Michelle Tufts, the administrator of Birchwoods at Canco, said the facility has Portland Wheelers come regularly because residents love the rides and come back energized and joyful.

“Oh my gosh, they love it. They get so excited about it, I can’t even tell you,” she said. “They’re outside in the fresh air, riding around. It’s an experience they didn’t think they’d have again.”

Patricia Stearns, 80, has gone for five rides with the Portland Wheelers, leaving from the front door of Birchwoods and looping through nearby neighborhoods to Back Cove.

“I just like going out and seeing the scenery and having someone do the work for me,” she said. “It’s a good way to get out, get some fresh air and see things.”

On the Monday morning of Cardone’s ride, a bright blue sky was dotted with a few wispy clouds. A light breeze kept temperatures in the low 70s.

“This is the kind of day we love doing what we do,” said Ray Richard, board president of the Portland Wheelers.

Richard began volunteering with the organization four years ago after he retired from the post office. When someone told him about the Portland Wheelers, he was immediately interested in the group’s mission.

“I like biking and I like meeting and talking to interesting people,” he said. “This combines most of that.”

The volunteer pilots and their passengers often chat throughout the ride, forming connections Malcolm says are rewarding for all involved.

“It’s a powerful experience each time,” he said. “We know we’re improving the lives of these people.”

After Richard and volunteers Kristin Huber, Judy Murphy and Tom McGonagle finished getting the trikes set up for the ride, they helped Birchwoods staff members position Cardone, Stearns and 81-year-old Alice Spach into their seats. After securing the passengers’ belts, strapping on their helmets and slipping sunglasses onto their faces, the group was ready to ride.

This ride would take them along a path in the woods, through a neighborhood and down to Back Cove. With Richard as a spotter, the other pilots easily navigated the familiar route while chatting with the three seniors. As the group rode along Back Cove, nearly every passing walker or runner would wave or say hello.

It’s not uncommon for the Portland Wheelers to draw attention wherever they go. That’s how both Murphy and McGonagle first found out about the organization and what prompted them to volunteer.

“I’d see them come through my neighborhood,” said Murphy, who lives in Portland. “I thought this is such a lovely thing to do for somebody.”

After a 45-minute ride, the group pulled back into the Birchwoods driveway with Murphy and Stearns in the lead. Everyone was smiling as the volunteers helped the seniors off the trikes and prepared for the next three riders.

“I’m not sure who has more fun, those of us piloting the bikes or those we give rides to,” Richard said.

 

__________________________

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. on July 22, 2019, to correct the number of rides the Portland Wheelers’ expect to provide this year.


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: