BLOOMINGTON — Barb Brown of Bloomington knows what it's like to be disabled and not able to experience the outdoors as you would like.

Now she has helped organize a program called Healing Rides that will enable the elderly and people with disabilities to feel the wind in their faces while cruising along Constitution Trail as passengers on a special wheelchair bike.

She got the idea from a similar program in Nantucket, Mass., where one of her sisters lives.

“I rode one and it was such a fabulous feeling,” said Brown, a cancer survivor who used cycling to regain her strength.

“This is how I want to give back for surviving,” Brown said. “Biking is what got me back on my feet and that brought this all together.”

Rides won't start until May 30, but people can start signing up now by calling Wesley United Methodist Church, which has taken on the project as part of its service ministry, at 309-827-8046.

“Barb had the vision,” said the Rev. Vaughn Hoffman. “We know Barb and her process of recovery.”

The pastor said the church saw the project as a way of “nurturing a connection to the outdoors” and also “a niche of care we didn't see anybody else doing.”

On a recent warm, sunny afternoon, she took her father, Lee Short, on a practice ride from the storage area on Empire Street north to Camelback Bridge and back.

“It's great,” Short said after the ride, calling it “quite a treat.”

The 94-year-old, who served on the McLean County Board for 18 years, lives at Westminster Village and hopes to get others living there to come out for rides, too.

The program uses special bikes called Duets that are manufactured in Holland and distributed in Pennsylvania.

Imagine a wheelchair where the front wheel of a bicycle would be. The wheelchair is tilted back slightly so only the two large wheels are on the ground when the bike is moving. The chair can be detached for easier maneuverability when helping the passenger into or out of it.

The rest looks, more or less, like a regular bicycle, except it has a battery assist to help get the bike moving and up hills.

Its safety systems include a seatbelt and chest harness for the passenger, drum brakes on the front and coaster brakes on the back and covers over the front wheels to prevent fingers or hands from being caught or injured.

The bikes aren't cheap at $10,000 each. But the first thing Brown needed, before raising money for a bike, was a place for storage along Constitution Trail.

“It really amazing how this came together,” Brown said. “In my heart, it really is God-led. … Doors just flew open.”

Erik Prenzler donated a storage spot in a building he owns at 716 E. Empire St., right on the trail, with parking available.

A monthlong fundraising effort in March brought in $10,010 — including $1,000 from the McLean County Wheelers cycling club. Bloomington Cycle and Fitness donated helmets for the pedalers and their passengers.

When she went to Pennsylvania in early April to pick up the bike that had been ordered, Brown said, “I almost fainted” when she found out an anonymous donor had provided an additional $10,000 for a second bike.

More than 20 volunteers signed up and eight have taken or are about to take their tests to be certified.

Their training includes spending 10 hours riding the bike on Constitution Trail with a passenger and with another cyclist accompanying them on a regular bike.

“I wanted to help out," said volunteer Donnie Pence of Bloomington. "I think it's a good idea to provide opportunities to get outside for disabled persons.”

Brown said research has shown that getting outside for recreational activities can help combat depression among people in long-term care facilities.

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota


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