Group looks to bring special bike-ride program for seniors to island

Five years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark, a man named Ole Kassow started a movement called Cycling Without Age (CWA), offering rides to seniors on special bikes called trishaws — like rickshaws, but with the passenger seat in front and a motor for electric assist. It was an effort to help seniors get back on bikes, remain an active part of society and their communities, feel the wind in their hair again, experience community and nature close-up from a bike and have the chance to tell their stories and build bridges between generations. Today, there are more than 225 chapters of CWA in 28 countries around the world, and a group of insightful and energetic locals is looking to start Washington’s first chapter of the program on Vashon.

The group, comprised of Steve Sussman (Vashon Community Care board member), Ava Apple (Vashon Senior Center executive director), Verna Everitt (executive director of the VCC Foundation), Holly Shepherd (VCC administrator), Hilary Emmer (community activist), Ken Pritchard (bike commuter and advocate) and Cara Aguilera (activities coordinator at VCC) is looking to bring two of the custom-made trishaws to the island. The intent would be to have one each based at the senior center and VCC, while an app-in-the-making would coordinate volunteers and rides. Passengers would not have to be involved with either the senior center or VCC to ride.

It was Sussman who originally brought the idea to Apple, though he can’t remember how he initially came across Kassow’s popular TEDx talk about the program.

“I and everyone else I know have been so bottomed out by anger and unhappiness recently. But for some reason, I watched Ole’s TED Talk about this and I was so jazzed by the idea … and I talked to Hilary (Emmer) about it,” he explained. “I thought about my own mother, whom I bought a bike for when she was 90 and she was thrilled. We figured that the electric-assist motors would make this feasible to do on the island.”

Cycling Without Age was born out of Kassow’s daily Copenhagen bike commute to work past a seniors’ facility, where he noted an elderly, well-dressed gentleman sitting outside every day. It made him wonder how long it had been since that gentleman or any of the other residents, had ridden his or their own bike(s). One day he rented a rickshaw and took it to the facility, and offered a ride to residents where he very quickly had two volunteers. After a successful and fulfilling first adventure, he found himself in demand and working on a larger-scale program with city officials.

Following the program’s mantra that everyone has the right to wind in their hair and its guiding principles of generosity, slow cycling (which allows passengers to sense the environment and be present in the moment, as well as time for sharing the program and its mission with strangers along the way), storytelling (elders have many stories that will be lost if they are not told and heard. Stories are told on the bikes and then shared when the “pilots” relay them to friends and family and on social media), relationships (the program creates new relationships between generations — pilots and passengers, for instance, or peers — passengers who end up riding together or volunteers who get to know each other through the program) and without age (life does not end at 75), the premise is simple, according to Everitt.

“The idea is to get seniors on the island engaging in the community and the community engaging with them,” she said.

To introduce islanders to the program and to kick off fundraising for the two trishaws, which cost $8,000 each, the group will host CWA founder Kassow at a presentation at 7 p.m. Friday, April 28, at the Land Trust building.

The Vashon trishaws will have custom motors that are a bit more powerful than the ones typically included, due to the island’s challenging topography. Each bike can take two passengers sitting side-by-side and will have drop-down foot rests for easier entry and exit to/from the passenger seat.

Volunteer “drivers” are called pilots, and for the Vashon program, should be 18 or older.

Anyone interested in becoming a CWA-Vashon volunteer pilot, should plan to attend the event on April 28.

“We’re always looking for opportunities for intergenerational activities,” Apple noted. “And transportation is a big obstacle for seniors. The potential for growth here is vast and the possibilities various.”

“This is so well suited to Vashon,” Everitt added, “given the large and involved cycling community here, as well as an island population that skews older. It’s a wonderful way to maintain a community connection, and give our seniors the opportunity to have the wind in their hair again.”

Sussman, whose enthusiasm for the program is seemingly boundless, agreed.

“There are many seniors who have lived here for a long time,” he said. “And what they are deprived of when they can’t get out on their own any more, is what we’re looking to bring back.”

Anyone interested in making a donation for the purchase of the trishaw bikes, may do so through the Vashon Senior Center in-person or via the website at “CWA” or “Cycling Without Age” or “Bikes” must be specified somehow with the donation to ensure the money is designated properly.

For more information on the Cycling Without Age program, all are welcome to attend the kick off event with founder Ole Kassow at 7 p.m. Friday, April 28, at the Land Trust building. Also see Kassow’s TEDx talk on YouTube. Or, watch the the trailer for the short film “The Grey Escape,” about CWA’s long trip from Denmark to Norway, to deliver trishaws as well as take a group of seniors on a multi-day adventure.

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