Helping Out

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Hitchin’ a Ride

Cycling Without Age Portage County is a boon to all involved

By Jeanne Nagle | November 5, 2019 | Campus and Community

In the fall of 2018, a unique mode of transportation caught the eye of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point alumnus Susan Bracco ’81 as she was peddling her bicycle near Mathias Mitchell Public Square. Bracco had encountered a group of trishaws—three-wheeled bikes with a carriage up front to transport passengers. She soon learned that the cyclists powering the trishaws through Pfiffner Park that day were volunteer “pilots” from a group called Cycling Without Age (CWA).

She was intrigued, to say the least. “I chased them,” she recalls, “and asked if I could volunteer.”

Cycling Without Age offers free trishaw rides to older adults and those with mobility issues. Based on a program that originated in Copenhagen, Denmark, CWA opened its first U.S. chapter in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 2013. Four years later, the Portage County chapter was founded by Tori Jennings, UWSP adjunct professor of anthropology, and Michelle Bachaus of the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation.

Jennings, who serves as CWA Portage County president, also credits county Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) director Cindy Piotrowski, Portage County CAN president and UWSP Prof. Annie Wetter (School of Health Promotion and Human Development) and the Community Foundation of Central Wisconsin for invaluable assistance in getting the program off the ground.

The Portage County group got its start using a “show-and-tell” approach during an event wherein Bachaus gave rides to nearly 100 people, using a trishaw obtained from Brewster Village in Appleton. Through donations and fundraising, CWA now has four trishaws of its own, and has given rides to an estimated 1,500 passengers over the course of 17 months in operation.

At the time of the chapter’s inception, Jennings acknowledges, Portage County was home to several facilities and programs that did a great job catering to the needs of the elderly. Yet she felt there was room for improvement in certain areas.

“What was lacking in the services provided to seniors was a way for older adults to get outdoors in nature while enjoying the company of others,” she says.

She notes that Point’s flat topography and dense development pattern, along with amenities such as the Green Circle Trail, make the town an ideal spot for the service CWA provides.

The nonprofit is a volunteer-run organization, so naturally the pilots in Pfiffner Park were all too happy to accept Susan Bracco’s offer of peddle-power. After completing eight hours of required training that covered passenger safety and assistance, as well as on-the-street practice operating the trishaws, she and her husband, Steve Bracco ’81, began serving as volunteer pilots. Currently, they give rides two or three times a month to residents of senior living facilities such as Willow Brook Pines and Brookdale, as well as senior-program participants from ADRC-Lincoln Center.

“We’re avid bikers, and are empty nesters now, so we have time,” says Susan. “And we like to be part of the community and get to know new people.”

On some level, the program in Portage County also can be described as a labor of love between UWSP and the Stevens Point community. Jennings reports that, at present, 20 alumni, including the Braccos, volunteer with the program as trishaw pilots. Also, in addition to Jennings and Wetter, several current and emeritus professors are volunteer pilots, while others conduct research studies involving the organization. One ongoing interdisciplinary study, which focuses on the health benefits of CWA, “will also engage students and give them the opportunity to design and practice research in the community,” says Jennings.

The Braccos can certainly attest to the many benefits of the program. “Numerous passengers, because of their age or limitations, do not get outside regularly,” says Steve. “It has been amazing to see their countenance light up while we are riding through the park or neighborhood. They love to be in the fresh air. Many will wave at each passing car, bicyclist or walker. They feel like ‘king’ or ‘queen’ for the day, which is especially gratifying.”

CWA volunteer pilots receive more than a fair amount of physical exercise in return for their efforts. Research has shown that this form of biking “helps the mental health of both pilot and rider,” says Susan.

“Cycling Without Age really is a social program, not a bike program,” Bachaus told an AARP interviewer in 2018. “It’s all about asking the right questions and actively listening.”

Seasoned volunteers—both are youth group leaders at Woodlands Church, while Susan also works as a mentor with Transact Hope and plays the role of “an old-fashioned schoolhouse teacher” at Heritage Park—the Braccos speak in glowing terms of their involvement with CWA.

“Not only do we enjoy the exercise and bringing enjoyment to our passengers,” says Steve, “but we have met and had delightful conversations with other pilots and passengers.”

He fondly remembers giving rides to one woman and each of her three young great-granddaughters, as well as the husband and wife from Whispering Pines who held hands throughout the entire journey. Susan has made plans to play cards with one passenger she has ferried about town. Being able to escort Susan’s father, and a friend’s dad who was recuperating from a stroke, on rides also are highlights both pilots recall with pride.

The Braccos feel they have many reasons to be thankful for that fateful encounter near Mathias Mitchell Square last fall. But Steve puts gratitude for their involvement with CWA most succinctly when he says, “We have a blast!”

To find out more about becoming a volunteer pilot or donating to CWA, contact Tori Jennings at cwa.stevenspoint@gmail.com or (715)344-7377.

 

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