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Hidden In Plain Sight: Pedaling To Greater Independence

In our daily drives this time of year, we frequently encounter cyclists on the paths and roadways around town.  More often than not, we continue on our journey without another thought about the person we see riding to points unknown.  Sometimes, there is a more going on than meets the eye. In this installment of WEMU’s “Hidden in Plain Sight" series, Jorge Avellan takes you inside a program that is helping those with disabilities pedal to greater independence. 

Reporter: "So we just walked into what seems like a warehouse, right? And there are hundreds of bikes in here."
John: "Yes, there are hundreds of bikes in here many tandems and even some triples."

I’m standing with John Waterman.  He is the Executive Director of Programs to Educate All Cyclists, also known as PEAC.  We’re at the organization's equipment building on North River Road in Ypsilanti.  The group’s mission is to empower individuals with disabilities through cycling. 

Jorge: "And where do you get these bikes from? Are they donated? Do you buy them?"
John: "It is a mixture. Most of the bikes we get are donated. However, we do get grants from different groups that support us that we can purchase new bikes."

But when buying a new bike is not an option, that’s when Bradley Parsons, the shop manager at PEAC, comes in.

Bradley: "There’s always two or three bikes that need some tweaking"

In a week, Bradley repairs about a dozen bikes.  Today, he’s replacing wheels and a seat on a mountain bike.

Bradley: "This would be a frameset with some parts still on it. There’s the handle bar still, shifters, and brakes are still there. Maybe an hour in the shop and maybe if I get lucky find the parts and get this running, and the kids can enjoy it."

John selects two Trek 800 mountain bikes.  They’re metallic red, and he says they’re about twenty years old.  Since we’re going to travel to different parts of Washtenaw County, we load the bikes onto his pickup truck and take a five minute drive to meet up with James Kleimola.  We meet him at his house in Ypsilanti for a ride. 

John: "He’s actually all ready to go. I didn’t get a chance to ring the bell as you see him sneak around the back with this bike getting ready for the ride. He’s that anxious and excited. Hey James, how are you doing there? We’re going to be riding today to work with you."
James: "Actually, I don’t have to go to work today, but I will be going to campus, though."

James is 26 years old and suffers from a cognitive impairment.  He joined PEAC two years ago.

James: "I like it because more independence."
Jorge: "What does that mean for you being more independent?"
James: "I will be able to get to places where I need to go."

James works at Eastern Michigan University’s Rec Center.  He checks people in at the front desk and also does maintenance work.  His green-colored bicycle and EMU Eagles t-shirt shows his loyalty to EMU.  Before we ride together on this sunny day, John goes over safety tips with James.

John: "What are some of the rules and things that you’ve learned and you know that we’re going to do?"
James: "Stay on the lane."
John: "What do you want to act like?"
James: "A gentleman."
John: "Act like a gentleman, always. Are you going to obey the same rules as the cars?"
James: "Yeah."
John: "Are you going to stop at the stop signs?"
James: "Yes. When you stop at the stop sign, what do you say?"
James: "Stopping."

As we ride through quiet residential streets in the College Heights neighborhood, John talks about how PEAC helps over 1,000 individuals over the age of five every year.

John: "Our summer program works twice a week, one hour training session, and they go through a seven to eight week program. However, we run programs through the year, and we have family rides every Thursday night to get families together to ride with the students with disabilities."

John and I load our bikes back on the truck after riding with James and make our way to ClagueMiddle Schoolin Ann Arbor.  That’s where one of PEAC’s eight cycling programs takes place.                                        

John: "We’re going to play red light, green light. OK? So on green light you go and red light you stop. How do you stop?"

Madison Prinzing is site coordinator, mentor, and one of three PEAC staff members working with five students in the parking lot of the school.  All five are on bikes, riding around in a circle.  These students range in age from eight to 13.  Prinzing takes time to work with a young girl named Lily.

Jorge: "I see tennis balls are cut in half here on the ground, on the pavement. What is that for?"
Madison: "So that running over is more of just a straight line. You can run these over, and a lot of students like to count them because it’s a task."
Jorge: "So that’s helping her coordination?"
Madison: Yes, so she can run over it and stay in a straight line and practice, that and it’s something that she can feel and see. Red light!"

While Lily continues riding on an adult-size tricycle, thirteen year-old Ellie is riding a side-by-side bike.  That’s a bicycle with two seats and four wheels.  Ellie was born with a heart defect and suffers from muscle problems and, on this day, is riding with her mother Margo Tish.

Margo: "It’s a great program. It allows her to be mobile. She probably would never drive a car, but she will hopefully have the opportunity to ride a bike. That’s something that other kids can do, and it’s nice when you have special needs or low muscle tone that you can learn to ride a bike."

PEAC charges $40 for the seven-week summer program, and if that’s a financial burden for a family, scholarships are available.

Another one of the riders is nine year-old Jenna.  She has a mild case of cerebral palsy and a smile that makes this sunny day even brighter. 

Jorge: "So, talk to me about you riding the bike. Why do you like doing it?"
Jenna: "It helps me get balanced."
Jorge: "What’s your favorite type of bike and why?"
Jenna: "The tandem because I like to go fast."
Jorge: "You like to go fast? Yeah, I saw you out there, you were super-fast. It was like a race car out there. So you’re obviously not afraid of riding a bike, right?"
Jenna: "Yes, I was afraid last year."
Jorge: "What changed?"
Jenna: "That I like it this year."
Jorge: "Do you feel more comfortable because you’re spending more time on the bicycle?"
Jenna: "Yeah."

After leaving Clague Middle School, John and I decided to take another bike ride in Ypsilanti, but this time on roads with more traffic.  He suggested riding those roads to see some of the changes he feels need to take place to make the roads safer for his students.  We start off on North River Street where the ride was pleasant until…

Jorge: "And that car is going way pass 25 miles per hour, and it seemed like we were in his way or her way."
John: "It definitely felt that, and as I felt you steer closer towards me to get away from him. It was not a comfortable feel for either of us."

But that was minor compared to what we experienced on Michigan Avenue.  It seemed simple enough.  Try and change from the right lane to the left lane in order to make a left turn on North Huron Street, near City Hall. 

John: "So what we are going to do here is take a left turn here. Ready? I’m going to come over. Signal left, Signal left. You got it. Change the lane. Thank you. All right."
Jorge: "That was very difficult."
John: "Very difficult. We had a truck driver that was not as welcoming. This is not a good feeling. So you’re going to stay right in the left lane when you make this corner. All right."
Jorge: "Wow."
John: "Now we’re going to move over where it’s safe, Jorge That was scarier than I thought."
Jorge: "Because they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to react to us."
John: "The truck driver did not want to slow down with his load."

John believes that Ypsilanti, like other cities in Washtenaw County, are doing a good job in becoming more bike friendly.  But improvements still need to be made.

John: "I think there needs to be more education, we need to invest more in infrastructure, which is always the case and to have more cyclists on the road. The more cyclists you have, the greater understanding you have for travel."

The next time you’re out, pay a little closer attention.  The cyclist you see may very well be on the road to greater freedom.  For those in the PEAC program, it’s a new sense of independence that, to the rest of us, is Hidden in Plain Sight.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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