Years ago, an Army captain and paraplegic received a custom trike that changed his life. Now he’s doing the same for children in RVA.
He served in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne and trained with the Special Forces, but it wasn’t bullets that got him.
At age 29, Captain James Howard dove into a familiar lake that, unbeknown to him, had been recently drained for construction. The water level was just two feet.
Howard dove in head first.
He suffered a C7 spinal cord injury that made him a quadriplegic. But despite his disability, Howard has experienced the fun of cycling with the help of a national organization that builds custom bikes for disabled children and veterans. Now Howard’s bringing those bikes to Richmond through REACHcycles..
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Howard’s custom trike was built by AMBUCS, a national nonprofit that builds AmTrykes for disabled people. An AMBUCS chapter in South Carolina built him a custom trike so he could take part in a veterans bike ride.
“The adrenaline of being out with other veterans, being with my friends again, helped me take that next step,” Howard said by phone recently. “Get out of my house and do things, and get some more rehab and therapy.” He’d eventually use that AmTryke to complete an 11-mile marathon. “I had to tape my hands to it,” he said.
Howard eventually worked as a liaison for the national AMBUCS organization. “If a veteran couldn’t get a bike, I’d basically fill that gap for them.” He knew how vital a simple cycle could be for veterans. “It kept me moving in the right direction,” he said about his. “It kind of filled the gap for me of not being overseas with my buddies doing my job. It really helped me move forward in my life.”
In 2011, he helped his mother, Nancy Wellons, start Wheels on the James, an AMBUCS chapter in Lynchburg, VA that provides AmTrykes to disabled children and veterans in that area. “Being involved with her chapter, receiving a bike down in South Carolina, and just seeing the great benefits of everything and seeing the smiles on the children’s’ faces when they get a bike…a small girl with no legs who’s smiling when she receives a bike…it kind of put things in perspective,” he said.
Wheels on the James have raised the money for, and distributed, over 100 bikes since its launch.
Howard eventually moved to Richmond in October 2013 “and just saw a great need for [an AMBUCS chapter] in this area,” he said. He launched REACHcycles1 in May 2014 to “provide disabled children and disabled veterans hand cycles.”
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Commonplace in the lives of most children, tricycles are a rarity for those with disabilities. “We see a lot of instances where insurance will disapprove children that are in need of these cycles,” Howard said. “We reach out to the community, try to raise funds, and get these bikes” to them.
REACHcycles got into gear by working with the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. “We found that there were 30 children that were denied bikes [by insurance],” Howard said. “So that was our first goal: to get these children these 30 bikes.”
REACHcycles worked with occupational therapists to measure and fit the children for their own custom bikes. Recently, the organization partnered with MCV physical and occupational therapy students, teaching those students how “to fit children, how to evaluate them, and fill out these forms so we can order them in the future,” Howard said.
Assessment forms go to AMBUCS, which builds each trike based on the child’s needs. Bikes typically cost $300 – $1,200, with orders taking roughly one to three months to fulfill.
REACHcycles has funded five bikes so far, which were assembled by local volunteers.2 REACHcycles is now attempting to raise the money to order the 25 bikes for the remaining children at Children’s Hospital.
Howard said he wants REACHcycles to host quarterly events “where we not only present new bikes to children, but we evaluate and fit new children that need these bikes.” The families and children who’ve already received bikes will be invited to those quarterly events so “these families can meet each other, learn from each other well beyond just getting a bike,” Howard said.
The events will also give children a chance to be around others like them. “These children see that there are these other children out there and they can ride with them,” Howard said. “It’s just a great benefit for everybody.”
REACHcycles is still awaiting its final nonprofit documentation to take direct donations. Currently, donations (which are tax-deductible) must come via check and be made out to Wheels on the James. Howard said that, once able, REACHcycles will have an online donation service. He also hopes to personalize the donation process by featuring specific children. Those interested in helping REACHcycles are encouraged to write check donations. “That’s the best way to help us right now,” Howard said.
Howard also wants to host regular events open to the public. The organization’s next event will be KidsFest2014 on Sunday from 1:00 – 5:00 PM in Chesterfield. “Hopefully [we’ll] hold more events where we bring awareness and bring the community together around these disabled children and veterans,” Howard said.
Even after helping so many children receive trikes over the years, Howard said the feeling you get helping a child is incomparable. “There’s nothing better than giving that child the freedom to get out and cycle and find that normalcy in their life,” he said. “And to be around other children and see that they can do more than just being in a wheelchair.”
Donate to REACHcycles here.
photo courtesy of REACHcycles