PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Warmer weather means more people are out on their bicycles. And in and around Portland, you can include tricycles to that.
These trikes are much larger than the children’s version and they are pedaled by adults who are giving rides to those who can’t pedal for themselves.
The tricycles belong to nonprofit Portland Wheelers – the idea of former nurse Doug Malcolm – which launched in 2015. Now, two years and two additional tricycles later, the group is stronger than ever but looking for a few good volunteers.
The group has given rides to more than 225 individuals in the Greater Portland Area, giving them a sense of child-like freedom many of them have never before experienced.
Ginny is one of those individuals. he’s a resident at an assisted living facility in Portland and is showing signs of Alzheimer’s. On a cool June afternoon, she is draped in a maroon colored blanket as she sits, perched in the front bucket seat of a Portland Wheeler’s trike piloted by volunteer Kris Grant.
"I’m just pedaling along and you’re riding. Isn’t that fun, Ginny?"
It’s Grant’s second ride of the day as driver of the three-wheeler. She said since admitting her own mother into a care facility, she’s felt an even stronger urge to help others; particularly the elderly.
"I love being outdoors. I love being connected with people and hearing their stories," Grant said — which is a very good thing because she has heard a lot of stories since she started volunteering.
"When they’re riding they’re telling us about things they remember and plants or homes and stories about their past and it’s really a privilege to get to know them."
The other two pilots who are volunteering with Grant nod their heads in agreement. "Pretty much everything about this is a lot of fun." Joe O’Donnell started piloting after retiring from his job at IDEXX. Today Bud is his passenger, or "wheeler."
"He’s very curious, he’s interested in everything and he knows a lot about house styles. Yup." Bud laughs with approval. "It’s fun. I’m a builder so I sit here and look at every single house as I go along."
While there are three separate tricycles, the pilots operate as if they are one. This outing is more team sport than individual. "We’re clear everybody." And on this ride, Kris Grant takes the lead, serving as both look out and safety officer, ensuring that every pilot and every wheeler is doing fine and enjoying the ride.
For the wheelers and the pilots, the hour long rides are a chance to be outside getting fresh air — sharing something a bit old fashioned; conversation, community, and, for passenger or wheeler Hank, it’s a ride that takes him back to his childhood. "Yeah really! Kind of," and he laughs, wearing a smile that hints at the joy he feels in taking his first bike ride in many, many years. "It’s just a great thrill for them. And some people, the first time they do it, they’re just enthralled. They want to do it again."
It’s the kind of response Doug Malcolm wants to hear. He started the Portland Wheelers back in 2015 with one tricycle and a big dream. "These are folks who, who just cannot and probably never will be able to ride a bike by themselves."
The tricycles are expensive: $10,000 and made in the Netherlands. They can carry passengers up to 250 pounds, which makes this component very important: "there’s a motor in the hub, it’s battery powered. We use the assist all the time. I’m a good strong rider but I use it all the time too at one level or another to even out the ride and so I can last all day volunteering the service."
Volunteers go through a day long training program, learning how to pilot. But what they’re really providing takes no training at all. Friendship, conversation and, for an hour, a freedom, as Malcolm sees it, the wheelers don’t usually experience.
"We are about the only activity that gets them out like that. They might get taken out for a trip to the store, or some sort of event, but from my experience there’s almost nothing else that’s getting them outside for recreation, just to get out for fresh air. Just pure joy? Yeah … pure joy."
Right now there are 30 pilots … they need 40 to 50 pilots who can commit to a three-hour shift each week this summer. If you’re interested, check out their website.