My Life as Volunteer Rickshaw Pilot

By Sue Ruthven

The staff at Valley VNA started talking about raising money to purchase bike rickshaws about two years ago. Right away, my husband Paul and I knew we would be members of the first corps of volunteer pedal-pushers, technically known in the Cycling Without Age rickshaw program as “pilots.” The two of us love the outdoors and do a lot of biking. Most importantly, we knew my mom Marion, a resident of Valley VNA, would love us to take her on rickshaw rides.

This is the first full season of rickshaws here in Neenah because the specially-ordered bikes arrived on a ship from Denmark just as the weather got cool last fall. I went through about three hours of training this spring and generally sign up to take residents around town one or two times a week through an online portal that allows me to choose times that work for me. My mom is naturally my favorite passenger, but I sign up for other ride slots and meet lots of other very appreciative residents, too.

VNA pilots have access to a garage at Valley VNA, and we arrive a few minutes ahead of our bike ride time to bring one of the two rickshaws up to the front doors. There, we press an alert button that announces we are ready, and a VNA staff member accompanies our passenger outside to help him or her get settled in. The rickshaw is a two-seater, and even guests are invited to join us (after signing a pesky waiver in advance of the ride, of course). I have yet to bring a young person and an old person on a ride together, but I can only imagine their simultaneous giggles, each of them feeling the same breeze and sunshine, but participating in the ride through entirely different lenses of life experience.

My friend recently asked me what my mom thinks of her rickshaw rides, and I said, “I think my mom is picturing herself riding with her sisters on a bike down a dirt country road, crickets chirping in the meadow.” She was a hardworking farm girl for whom the song of redwing blackbirds still conjures memories of roadside cattails and fence posts. She loves to be outdoors!

The amazing people of Neenah are so fascinated and friendly when it comes to VNA rickshaws. We are a bit of a wide load, so I used to worry about frustrating drivers when I had to take a full lane. That fear is entirely unfounded; in fact, drivers willingly slow down and even roll down their windows and wave. Young and old faces light up when they see us coming. Rides out to Kimberly Point inevitably involve one or two stops as curious people flag us down to ask questions about our three-wheeled contraption (with a sly power assist, should your legs get fatigued). I like to stop at Rocket Park so my passengers can watch the kids play, then on to the fountain, where I will park just close enough to feel the mist brush our faces. It’s all so invigorating and life-giving.

One of my recent passengers was a little confused about my role as a rickshaw pilot and encouraged me to stop at the desk after our ride to get paid. She was very happy for me to have the chance to earn some extra pocket money, but I assured her that I was happy to volunteer! In truth, I am paid back in joy. I talk to fascinating Valley VNA residents, interact with people in our beautiful community, and help some very special seniors experience warm summer sunshine again, just like when they were younger. It’s true what they say—you really never forget how to ride a bike.