PORTLAND — A program that provides recreational trail rides to elderly and disabled people is getting set to roll into the city.
“It is a simple pleasure, that’s all it is, but it has enormous benefits,” Portland Wheelers Executive Director Doug Malcolm said April 9 about volunteers who will pedal along city trails on battery-powered tricycles fitted with wheelchairs.
Portland Wheelers is seeking funding for three $9,300, German-built tricycles through an Indiegogo site, and Malcolm said they would like to have them here by May 9 so volunteers can begin training for the program.
The goal is to start with four rides daily between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, with weekends and weeknights added when there is sufficient daylight.
Portland Wheelers would like to offer the rides to pairs of three, one rider and one pedaler or “pilot,”and all accompanied by a bicyclist who acts as a crossing guard at intersections and can alert responders in case of an emergency.
“You go out in a pod of three for safety and camaraderie,” Malcolm said.
The fundraising goal is $35,000, but Malcolm said it won’t take that much to start a program of free rides along the southern side of Back Cove Trail and toward East End Beach.
“For those of us in the biking community, it is a win-win,” Portland Wheelers board member Andy Charles said April 9.
Charles, the former owner of Haven’s Candies, is also ready to volunteer as a pilot for the rides.
“It is a really great opportunity to do something good for people who don’t have access to recreation in Portland,” he said.
Even if Portland Wheelers can only fund one tricycle this year, the program will roll out, because non-electric tricycles owned by Maine Veterans’ Homes In Scarborough will be used for the training.
Portland Wheelers is patterned after Nantucket Wheelers, established three years ago by Nantucket, Massachusetts, real estate agent Darcy Creech.
“I was looking for something to sink my teeth into on Nantucket and a way to give back,” Creech said April 10.
She said the idea came from a Youtube video called “What is Love?,” about a man who gave his wife rides on a tricycle fitted with a wheelchair in front.
Creech said she asked her son, Peter, to visit the manufacturer in Germany, a visit that ended up with a test ride. Meanwhile, her younger son, Cole, had started a family tradition of giving Christmas gifts to residents of Our Island Home, a Nantucket assisted living center.
“I just believed in it,” Creech said. “I know when God drops an idea in my spirit, I can go for it.”
The tricycles are assisted by a battery powered motor, and pilots do not have to be avid bicyclists to volunteer.
“I hadn’t ridden a bike for more than 10 years,” Creech said. “The point is not to get a work out.”
Rather, by riding in groups of three and inviting other family and friends along, the goal is to get people outdoors and enjoying themselves. Creech also has a bicycle rider accompany the groups.
“It is a group experience,” she said. “If someone goes out by themselves, they don’t have anyone to share it with.”
Creech raised $42,000 in 35 days to start the program, and the number of volunteer pilots doubled from 15 to 30 last year.
A former nurse at the New England Rehabilitation Hospital of Portland, Malcolm is confident the rides will produce tangible physical and mental health benefits.
“We are trying to break through the isolation and push back at the depression,” he said.
Portland Wheelers hopes to get at least 30 volunteer pilots, and Creech said they need at least 10 hours training, which includes piloting and riding in the seat.
Malcolm credited Mayor Michael Brennan and Troy Moon, Portland’s manager of Environmental Programs and Open Space, for creating an exception to rules that would otherwise bar the motorized tricycles on city trails.
Once aboard, riders will stay in place for what are expected to be about one-hour rides out and back from Seaside Rehabilitation and Healthcare Community at 850 Baxter Blvd.
While Creech will be the trainer and has provided the inspiration for the Portland Wheelers, Malcolm promised the local version will be unique.
“We are the only program looking right from the get-go to work with all people with disabilities, not just senior citizens,” he said. “We are going to be able to model a program that just doesn’t exist in the country.”
Pilots and passengers enjoy at day at the beach last summer as part of the the Nantucket Wheelers motorized tricycles program in Massachusetts. A similar program is planned in Portland next month. Organizers hope to use three tricycles for rides along the Back Cove and East End trails.
Portland Wheelers Executive Director Doug Malcolm, left, and board member Andy Charles would like to start offering tricycle rides to disabled and elderly people next month. “It is a simple pleasure, that’s all it is, but it has enormous benefits,” Malcolm said.
The German-built tricycles Portland Wheelers hopes to buy cost $9,300 each and have battery-powered motors.