Bikes represent freedom, play, childhood and possibility. But for many underprivileged children in the Springfield, Massachusetts, area, owning their own bicycle was not a possibility until longtime auto mechanic Bob Charland stepped in to make many childhood dreams come true.
Charland, 44, who was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease this spring, made peace with his fate and decided he’d spend much of his free time and last days giving back to local youth.
Over the past five months, he’s repaired and assembled nearly 300 bikes, working late into the evening after his day job as an auto mechanic to tighten wheels, adjust seats and position handlebars in an effort he calls Pedal Thru Youth. The labor-intensive project is all worth it when he sees the smiles on children’s faces when they realize the special gift they’re about to receive, Charland tells PEOPLE.
“When I was a kid, a bike was everything. And the only video game we had was Pac-Man. Now we see kids inside, not being active, watching all this violence. If I can go into poor neighborhood and get the kids outside and active, this is going to improve their life, really help their self-esteem,” Charlene says.
Delivering the bicycles to schools, youth groups, housing projects and at organized rallies has become quite the affair. Typically, Charland and his trucks filled with bikes get a police and fire department escort as the gift-giving convoy sets off on journeys to surprise kids in need.
A former bouncer and bodyguard, Charland says he became invested in improving the lives of children when he became a single parent to his daughter when she was just 9. To support her interests and devote himself to their quality time, Charland became her Girl Scout troop co-leader and coached softball. After she grew out of these pursuits, Charland says he realized he had a heart for kids and wanted to do more.
He’d been repairing bikes occasionally for a nun who worked with a local homeless shelter. Soon, as he saw such a greater need, his bike repair program grew organically, inspired by his boundless drive to always do more.
“His efforts are very inspirational to a lot of people. You really don’t realize it — that he’s sick,” friend and fellow auto mechanic Al Tranghese tells PEOPLE of Charland’s determination. “He just doesn’t stop — he pushes through night after night, day after day, whether he feels good or not. He’s really uplifting and great to be around.”
Tranghese, who has worked alongside Charland from the beginning on the bike assembly projects, recalls helping to deliver 30 bikes to a local school. The happy children all wrote thank you letters to Charland. But the most touching, he said, came from a third-grade boy named Angel.
“He thanked us and said he was so happy to share his bike with his brother and sister who had none,” he says. “Even though many of these kids don’t have anything, to know that they are not selfish and would want to share. That is amazing.”
Of course, the men quickly got to work on finding bikes for both of Angel’s siblings, giving the whole story a bigger happy ending. “It’s stuff like that that makes it it all worth it in the end,” Tranghese says.
Principal Stafania Raschilla, who leads one of the poorest schools in the city and state, William N. DeBerry Elementary in Springfield, welcomed Charland to her school in May for a bike giveaway to select students. He contacted her in April to ask if kids there needed help.
“Bob’s generosity through all of this really made it happen,” she tells PEOPLE of that special day.
“I feel awful that he’s sick and his condition is getting worse. But for him to take all this time — the dedication that he has to low-income students — it’s almost like a lasting legacy that he’s leaving for the kids and this community.”
To pay Charland’s kindess forward, Raschilla’s students held a raffle and put together donated gift baskets. Their .25-cent ticket sales raised $100, which was donated back to Charland’s program — sending a strong message and a lesson for her kids about giving, she says.
“What he’s doing, it’s great for the morale of our students, and it also promotes healthy lifestyles. It came at the perfect time, right before summer began. And to see them out riding, getting outdoors in their neighborhoods and local parks, it really does add so much to the students’ lives.”
Charland’s efforts to help have not gone unnoticed. The city has donated space at the Department of Public Works where he can store and repair his bikes away form his workplace, Lyndale Garage.
He has received several awards and commendations, and was honored in July by the National Center for Human Development. He’s also seen donations from not only his local community, including parts from a local bike shop, and but also from around his state, the nation, and as far away as Australia. The attention has helped him to secure sponsorships for things such as locks, safety helmets, water bottles, T-shirts and other gear to give away along with the bikes themselves.
Charland is now working on building a non-profit, pedalthruyouth.org, to continue his efforts “so that children from all over who need a little help to get outside and be active have that opportunity.”
He also lauds state and local law enforcement, which has helped him to deliver bikes and work in the community. He believes having them along on his gifting missions helps to promote more positive images for children who may have only seen officers hauling away people in handcuffs. “Now they see the police in a better light.”
He adds of his motivation to continue this work: “I do this because I know whatever time I have left in this world, I can improve kids’ lives. There are so many kids who fall through the cracks and there are a lot of kids who don’t have real parents. For me, it’s about spending time with a child and making them know they are loved. I found a simple way to share with the kids to let them know someone in this world cares about them — with bicycles.”