On a summery Saturday morning, 23-year-old T.J. sets out to ride a stretch of trail in his hometown of Bloomington, Illinois. As he gathers speed on the canopied straightaways of the Constitution Trail, he shouts for joy and races the other riders. And as his tires thrum across wooden bridges, he calls out just to hear the strange vibrations of his own voice.
T.J. rides as a passenger in a wheelchair bike. He’s a participant in a community-based program called Healing Rides, which pairs disabled or elderly “guests” with trained volunteer “pedalers.” The tandem bike allows T.J., who has severely limited physical mobility, to ride securely in front so he can enjoy the cycling experience as the primary rider rather than as a towed passenger. According to Barbara Brown, the program’s founder, T.J. begins each ride “with his hands drawn up to his chest and … a bite ring to prevent grinding his teeth.” But by the end of the ride, he relaxes his arms at his sides and the bite ring falls to his lap.
T.J. is just one of 150 Healing Rides participants who benefit mentally and physically from regular trail rides along the Constitution Trail, a 36.4-mile rail-trail jointly owned and maintained by the twin Illinois cities of Bloomington and Normal. Brown recounts the success stories: a couple in their 80s who draw fellow trail riders into cheering contests for their beloved Cubs and Cardinals baseball teams. A woman from a local nursing home who, in thanking her pedaler, spoke her first words in two years. A terminally ill man whose daughter says he hardly ever smiled at the end of his illness—except for the hours after each ride.
Brown, a lifelong cyclist, says her rides on the nearby Constitution Trail helped her heal after a battle with cancer in 2014. In October of that year, she met Darcy Creech, the founder of a wheelchair biking program in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Brown was inspired to bring a similar program home to the Constitution Trail, whose paved surface makes it an ideal route for wheelchair bikes. With the support of Wesley Church and Bloomington Cycle, Brown was able to launch Healing Rides in early 2015.
“I talked to a gazillion people up and down the trail,” she recounts. “I convinced Erik Prenzler, a local storage owner on the trail, to donate bike storage space. I talked to everyone who would listen to me.”
As Brown lobbied the community and shared her vision, the donations began to pour in. The charity raised $20,000, enough to purchase the twoDuet wheelchair bikes needed to begin their outreach. Then Brown began getting the word out to nursing home activity directors, offering them rides. It didn’t take long to build a list of eager senior riders.
“These are adventurous, bold people,” Brown says. “And those who ride go back to the nursing home and say [to their fellow residents], ‘You’ve gotta try this!’”
The volunteers are seasoned cyclists who meet the program’s fitness requirements and undergo rigorous safety training. The goal: to build friendship and trust, “making each guest feel they are the most important person on the face of this earth.”