A bike represents so many quintessential parts of childhood: playtime with friends, warm summer days, freedom from the indoors. But for many kids, whose parents perhaps can't afford a new bicycle or don't have time away from work to give riding lessons, they don't know the feeling of strapping on a helmet and putting their feet to the pedals.
That is, until Bob "The Bike Guy" Charland comes along.
There are over 1,200 kids in Massachusetts and Connecticut who now own their very own set of wheels because of Charland. He is the founder of Pedal Thru Youth, a group of volunteers in Springfield that restores bikes, brings them to schools in low-income neighborhoods and gifts them to young students doing well in their classes.
Photo credit: Seshu Photography
Charland said "the looks in not only their eyes but in their parents' eyes when we gave these bikes to them" is why he keeps giving. A day early in Pedal Thru Youth's history sticks out in his mind. "When my team and I were leaving afterward, we were about to get up on the highway to go home, and all these kids were riding their bikes past us smiling and waving at us," Charland told InsideEdition.com.
Giving the Gift of Childhood
For 45-year-old Charland, who grew up in a farm town in upstate New York and spent days playing outside with friends "until the streetlights came on," he wanted to make sure kids today could have the same experiences he did before digital distractions came along.
"A bike represents freedom. Nowadays, kids are so glued to social media devices, video games ... and they're not getting off the couch and getting motivated," he said. "So the whole idea behind this was to get kids active, get them out in the community.
"You can't be friends with a video game, but you can make real friends out in public," he added. "That helps and it works."
Charland doesn't just hand over the bikes and say goodbye. Bringing local police officers with him, he spends significant time at the schools and community events. Arriving in style, they all show up in their emergency vehicles with sirens blaring and lights whirling, making the moment all the more special for the kids
"Some of [the kids] are jumping up and down, some of them are pointing at the bikes wondering which one is theirs. We've had situations where we got pictures of state troopers actually teaching these kids how to ride in a gymnasium or auditorium because some of these kids never had a bike before because their parents can't afford it. ... It's beautiful."
The members of law enforcement are the ones teaching the kids how to stay safe while having fun and strapping the helmets on the children for the first time. A local ambulance service comes in to teach the kids the basics of first aid and staying hydrated. And after all that, each child has one-on-one time with a single officer who fits their bike to them.
In addition to giving children these bicycles, the volunteer sheriff's deputy is also using the organization to help "show the positive side of law enforcement. Kids that live in poverty areas see the absolute worst in police," he said, and he wants to change that.
"This interaction could be the best and most positive interaction these kids ever have with law enforcement. And maybe some day they're gonna grow up and instead of hating us they're gonna appreciate us, and they're gonna say, 'My first bike came from a cop,'" Charland said.
A Devastating Diagnosis
Making sure kids can take part in such a significant, yet simple, piece of childhood has become Charland's life mission.
"I knew that I could do more with my life. It was like a sense of purpose," he said.
He decided to "do more" with his life about two years ago, when he was faced with a devastating diagnosis.
"I found out that I had a brain disorder, a deterioration of the brain," he said.
Neurodegenerative brain diseases cause the brain to rapidly break down and nerve cells to die. This affects many activities, such as walking, balance, talking and breathing. They also cause memory loss, headaches and tremors, all of which Charland has. Doctors told him his brain had advanced way beyond what is expected for his young age.
While treatment may relieve symptoms for patients, there is no cure for a neurodegenerative brain disease.
Faced with the reality that his brain would eventually stop working, he decided that he wanted to move forward on his own terms.
"I went to Vermont and I started the application process for a program called Death With Dignity," he said.
And it was during this process that Charland got a call that changed the course of his life. A guidance counselor from a local school back home asked Charland if he had any bikes he could donate to a pre-K program for children in low-income families nearby.
Charland was no stranger to community work — he used to be his daughter's Girl Scout troop leader, he was a coach and he's been volunteer teaching deaf students for 14 years. "I was always doing stuff," he said. So the guidance counselor's request was nothing out of the ordinary for him. But it was the circumstances surrounding the request that made all the difference for Charland.
"One of my friends from the Adirondack Mountains drove 3 1/2-4 hours to come down and visit me while I was in Vermont and say, 'You know what, you can do a lot more with your life.' And I thought I had done it all. ... But this calling to come and just fix bikes, it just, I don't know, flipped a switch in me in some way. And I'm glad I did and I never looked back," he said.
Making the Most of the Time That's Left
He doesn't know how much longer he has to live, but he's choosing to make the most of whatever time is left. What started as "a simple idea for a couple of bikes," with Charland simply knocking on doors to gift some 50 bikes he had repaired, has become a regional organization of 30 local volunteers and a stock of over 2,000 bikes.
"I never have these 'woe is me' days. ... I'm not gonna do that because I know every day I can get up with purpose and make a difference," he said.
Charland hopes his organization will continue changing lives in his community, and beyond, when he's gone.
"My wife and I had a meeting with our volunteers a couple of weeks ago when I left the doctors again. And we said, 'Ya know, things are just going to continue to get worse.' And I looked at every one of them, and every single one of them promised that they would keep this going long after I'm gone."
For now, it's those smiles, those laughs from the kids when they see the new bike that's just for them, that keeps Charland going.
"I think it will keep making a difference. It doesn't just make a difference in the people's lives that we serve or give to. It makes a difference in our lives."