by Catherine Macallister
“I never thought I’d ever go down Polpis again.” This one phrase captures the meaning behind a local organization that makes it possible for non-ambulatory residents of Our Island Home to enjoy the more than 30 miles of bike paths on Nantucket. The organization is Nantucket Wheelers and since 2007 they have been bridging the restrictions of traditional biking experiences, allowing for any rider to get out and enjoy the fresh summer air.
Darcy Creech Marelli, the owner of Peter Beaton Hat Studio and founder of Nantucket Wheelers, has partnered with sponsors across the island to make sure that all citizens, especially those who are non-ambulatory, are able to enjoy the bike paths of Nantucket through recreational therapy. In 2007, Nantucket Wheelers raised “35 K in 35 Days,” enough to purchase three Duets, tandem style, battery assisted bikes with a detachable wheelchair. The wheelchair-bicycle hybrid allows for a volunteer and a companion to take to the bike paths and experience the outdoors.
When the program first began, Marelli’s concept was promoting “a social outing,” and over the years it has continued to evolve. You will now see residents out and about enjoying an ice cream cone at Surfside Beach Shack or headed to Moore’s End Farm to pick out fresh vegetables and fruit. “They have a shared experience,” says Marelli, referring to the connections that the residents of Our Island Home share with the volunteer riders as well as the group that is out for the ride that day. Additionally, there are opportunities for “community rides” in which other people outside of Our Island Home are able to utilize the bike to bring their friend or loved one on a ride along one of the bike path. The program has also welcomed groups from Camp Tulgeywood and Adam’s Camp, each offering summer programs on Nantucket that are able to utilize the Nantucket Wheelers bikes to transport participants in the camp. Groups of 3 or 4 bikes take to the paths Monday-Wednesday, fostering important relationships between volunteers and residents as well as important bonds between the residents themselves. “It brings back memories,” says Marelli, giving the opportunity for residents to actively participate in island life in a new way, and even run into former friends and acquaintances that they haven’t seen in years.
Marelli has helped to create a program that is beneficial to everyone, “it blesses the volunteers as much as it blesses the residents” she says of the program. She first felt the feeling of “this is the project you’ve been looking for” after watching a video called “What is Love?” about a man who had a bike specially built so that he could take his wife, who was living with dementia, on a bike ride, a pastime that they used to enjoy before it became impossible for her to ride alone. After seeing the positive affects that this riding experience had on the husband-and-wife duo, Marelli acted quickly: speaking with the man from the video, researching bikes, and effectively raising the funds needed to make a program happen on Nantucket. In just six months or so, Marelli had her program, her sponsors, and three bikes to begin. The results have been tremendous, providing a connection to the outdoor world while also improving the overall mood of the residents through the positive interactions in this program. “It is so important,” says Marelli, “I am glad to be able to provide that extra dimension.”
The hearts of this endeavor are the volunteers: “volunteers that are so passionate about the program,” says Marelli, also pointing out the generosity of the local businesses on the island. “This program is successful because of the people in the community, “ she says, pointing to organizations and businesses like Don Allen, First Congregational Church of Nantucket, Surfside Beach Shack, and Nantucket Bike Shop, who help to defer any potential costs associated with the program. The church pays the insurance, Surfside Beach Shack covers any food charges, The Bike Shop provides labor for any fixing or adjusting of the bikes, and Don Allen provides the storage and battery charging space on Polpis Road. Partnering with Our Island Home, the Nantucket Wheelers have coordinated getting residents to their station at Don Allen in order to get out on the road and begin their rides.
The Nantucket Wheelers is the type of “program that appeals to every kind of person” and is “inclusive to all groups. The hope is that this program will inspire a “multigenerational mindset and get us going in a positive direction,” says Marelli, speaking to the importance of making sure that older generations are as much a part of island life as any other demographic. “I think that this program has brought them out to the forefront” she says. While the program largely takes place in the later spring, summer, and early fall, many of the volunteers continue to impact Our Island Home residents “maintaining relationships through the year” through programs during the winter months. Nantucket Wheelers and its team help to foster relationships and make a difference yearround. The benefits of this type of recreational therapy extend beyond the ride itself: there is a hope that over time it improves appetite, sleep patterns, and in general affects the residents’ outlooks on life, creating an overall happier existence.
While it is in its 7th year, the impact of Nantucket Wheelers on continues to impact “Nantucket 4th Quartarians” in many positive ways. Through their connections to Camp Tulgeywood and Adam’s Camp, they are able to reach even more community members and help to foster summer fun on the bike paths of Nantucket. To volunteer with Nantucket Wheelers as a rider or as a substitute rider, visit nantucketwheelers.org where you will be directed to fill out paperwork and sign up for training sessions. Rides currently occur Monday- Wednesday with community rider spots available on select days. There is also details on how to donate at nantucketwheelers.org.