By Annie Gentile, correspondent
By day he’s an automotive repair technician at the Lyndale Garage in Springfield, and by night he has worked as a bouncer, but kids in the Greater Springfield area know him best as “Bob the Bike Man” – and for good reason.
Bob Charland, 44, has been repairing and touching up old bicycles here and there for the past seven years. It started with Sister Joyce, his daughter’s former guidance counselor at Forest Park Middle School, for whom he would refurbish five to 10 bikes a year for some of the children she taught. More recently he refurbished several bikes for Mimi Warendorf O’Neill, who works with kids in the Springfield school system.
O’Neill was looking for a few tricycles and scooters for pre-school age children, and not having anything new available, Charland found some old trikes from the 1970s which he repaired, sandblasted and shined up nice.
“When [O’Neill] came to pick up the bikes and saw them, she started crying when she saw the work I put into them, and she got pretty ecstatic and called 22 News,” said Charland. They news crew did a story on the bike donation, and while he thought it was nice, he didn’t give it much thought again until the reporter at the news station told him their story had been viewed thousands of times and was being shared over and over again on Facebook.
The media coverage got Charland to thinking—why stop? Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if he could get a lot more bikes into the hands of a lot more kids, particularly those whose families might not be able to afford them? It seemed like a great idea, especially knowing he didn’t have a lot of time left. Charland had been diagnosed with a neuro-degenerative brain disorder, which he knows will get progressively worse. He suffered a minor stroke in 2011 and sometimes experiences tremors. The diagnosis is terminal.
And so on Easter Sunday, Charland with the help of Anouson Souvannasane and Steve Fopp, two friends on the Chicopee Police Department, arrived at a low income housing development in Chicopee to deliver 20 reconditioned bikes.
“Easter Sunday, if you remember, was a gorgeous day, but when we got there, there wasn’t a kid in sight,” said Charland.
When he asked someone outside where everyone was, he was told most were inside playing video games. He asked that the person start knocking on doors and ask the kids to come out and pick out a bike for themselves and in 15 or 20 minutes there were kids all over riding their bikes up and down, laughing and in some cases crying.
“It was so amazing,” Charland said.
Before he knew it, his story was getting not just local coverage but had been picked up by national news stations as well, including CNN and Fox News. In June, a movie crew came out to film him as part of a documentary titled “My Dying Days,” which will air in December. People Magazine will be running a story on his efforts in September.
More important were the monetary donations as well as other offers that started rolling in, including a free helmet from AAA for every donated bike, and bicycle contributions from Councilman Justin Hurst with the City of Springfield. Today, his shop is bulging at the seams with bikes.
Charland’s goal is to establish a non-profit charitable organization to continue his work after he is gone, and he has started a GoFundMe account called Pedal Thru Youth Startup to raise money to cover the costs involved in establishing a non-profit as well as to purchase additional repair equipment. Since Easter, he has donated bikes to kids living in homeless shelters who attend Lawrence School in Holyoke, to Kelly Elementary School also in Holyoke, and to Washington School, DuBarry Elementary, and Boland Schools in Springfield.
Charland’s interest in getting new or refurbished bikes into the hands of kids in need grew, in part, out of simply being a dad. A single father, he was granted full custody of his daughter when she was 9 years old, and he proceeded to take a very active role in her life. That included becoming a Girl Scout leader and girls softball coach, and volunteering as an automotive instructor for students at the Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow, for which he has been twice presented the vocational instructor of the year award.
He’s also served as a government translator and has taught English as a second language. It’s all part of the reason the City presented him in June with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
“In some ways I can’t believe it. I came from the Adirondack area in New York. I was just a farm boy and now I’m changing kids’ lives. I’m taking kids with not a lot in life and getting them off the couch and active and giving them a chance,” said Charland. “It’s a win-win. “It really makes all the nonsense worth it.”